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Crossed Wires

Massachusett residents who need unemployment benefits must battle a flawed disbursement system.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In the Valley and across the state, the bugs have still not been worked out of the Department of Unemployment Assistance’s new Web-based unemployment benefits system, and the nightmare of nonpayment is continuing for many applicants.

Even worse, some are being hit with bills—some valid and some not—for thousands of dollars the system claims they owe in back payments, and their benefits are being garnished to pay the bills.

Complaints range from relatively minor problems operating the Web-based system to delays of weeks or months in getting cases processed. So many are coming in that the state senate’s Committee on Post Audit and Oversight will hold a hearing October 28 on the problems with the system, which cost the state $46 million.

At the Hampshire-Franklin Career Center at 178 Industrial Drive in Northampton on one business day, the Advocate found people in all stages of the process of applying for benefits. One woman who was busily typing at a computer said that she was doing fine, and that the workers there were helpful when she needed them. But a group gathered around a table near the entrance were outspoken in their view that the new system is pointedly geared to weed out welfare fraud rather than to help people get benefits [“Technoglitch at Unemployment Offices,” August 6, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com].

“I’ve gotten about halfway through the process, on the Internet and by telephone,” said David Anderson of Northampton. “The telephone told me the Internet wasn’t working. It shut me down.”

“I’ve been off work since July 17,” said Craig Hallett of Easthampton. “I opened a claim the next week. I haven’t collected anything yet.” Hallett made a mistake in filing his application, and, as he explained, “If you make a mistake, they review your case. They told me on the phone it takes eight weeks to get reviewed.”

How does a person get by for eight weeks with no income? “I’m pretty lucky,” said Hallett. “I have good parents. You have to have an understanding landlord, or bank, if you have a mortgage.”

Stephen Rodrique of Holyoke said he opened a claim after being laid off work August 17, and “for six weeks I haven’t gotten anything. I had a lot of problems getting through, and the people in their call agency didn’t know what they were doing.”

Then there are the bills for alleged overpayments. Rodrique showed a bill for $3,326 that he received from the DUA for what the agency claims are overpayments from a claim he had open from November, 2012 to March, 2013. “Ridiculous” was his word for the allegation that he was overpayed by more than $3,000 during that period.

In other parts of the state, reports of system user trauma have been abundant in the press. A woman from Harvard was sent a bill for $10,000—more than the total she had received in unemployment compensation, she said. A man from Lawrence got a notice that he owed over $45,000.

 

UI Online, the system the state has been using to disburse unemployment benefits since July 1, was implemented by Deloitte Consulting of New York two years late, at a price of $6 million over the initially stated cost of $40 million. The system had originally been developed by BearingPoint, a KPMG spinoff that went bankrupt in 2009. Deloitte took over the Massachusetts contract after the bankruptcy.

Before the part of the system that’s supposed to serve unemployed workers came on line, the employer side of the program was implemented; that part worked so poorly that the state had to waive interest on some employer contributions to the unemployment insurance system that the program mistakenly said had not been paid.

Last year, the state Department of Revenue had tried to launch a similar system implemented by Deloitte, and the test run was a nightmare. When Commissioner Amy Pitter realized that her agency had paid $54 million for a program that couldn’t compute interest and penalties, she terminated the company’s contract. The DOR has salvaged as much as it can of the hardware and software from the Deloitte program and expects to have a system running sometime next year.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the DUA’s parent agency, made a different decision: it got its system by July 1 by threatening to fine Deloitte $10,000 a day if it didn’t deliver by that time, and now, as DLWD spokeswoman Lauren Jones told the Boston Globe, “we are holding the vendor accountable for any necessary fixes.”

The legislative hearing on the UI Online system is being held by Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton, who told the Globe that she and other legislators have gotten so many complaints from unemployed people trying to use the system that it all “warrants a look at what’s going on.” The hearing will deal not only with user problems, but with the history of the state’s dealings with BearingPoint and Deloitte. It takes place at 10 a.m. Oct. 28 at the Statehouse. Only those invited may speak. For more information, contact Creem’s office at (617) 722-1639.•

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