Friday, July 24, 2009

Weekend Assignment #277: Running the Gauntlet

I have an unfinished EMPS entry from earlier in the week, a Feline and Furball Friday entry to work in, and a Round Robin entry to do later tonight. But let's get this one done first:

Weekend Assignment: #277: We've all become used to automated phone routers ("To continue in English, press 1"), long waits at government offices and other bureaucratic obstacles to getting something done. Have you any particular horror stories along these lines, or have you had mostly good experiences with government agencies?
Extra Credit: Does this problem seem to be getting better or worse?

As I've mentioned before, I haven't received an unemployment insurance payment since the end of May, despite filing weekly claims every week since. When I discovered this in late June, my online research and a notice from the state led me to file a claim for an additional seven weeks of emergency federal unemployment. The week after I did that, I learned that this was not the correct thing to do. Perhaps because I first filed my original claim at the end of May, 2008, after losing my job at Beaudry RV, my benefit year ended at the end of May 2009. Any benefits earned by me through working from June 2007 to May 2008 ended with that fiscal year. To get any new benefits, I needed to have earned them by working between June 2008 and May 2009. So far, so confusing, right? But the good news is that I worked solidly for a good wage between June and early September, 2008, and for a few days in January 2009. And guess what? That's enough to qualify!

So I supposedly filed this new claim over the phone in early July with someone from the state unemployment insurance office, who had actually called me about my case. But for whatever reason, nothing we talked about that day got into my electronic file. My new claim never went into effect.

Okay, then the logical thing to do was to file a new claim myself, right? Only I couldn't, or so it seemed. Every time I tried to file the claim online, I got through every screen of the online form, only to be told on the last page that a system error occurred. This happened over and over, on different days, using Firefox, IE and even John's Mac (also with Firefox). Nothing made any difference. The error screen at the end helpfully directled me to call and file by phone, advice which was reiterated by the notice I got in the mail about my 7-week claim being denied because of the benefit year ending.

And when I called?

"Thank you for calling the [blah-blah-blah]. We are experiencing a high volume of calls and cannot take your call at this time." The recording goes on to say that you should file online instead. I got this same recording in many attempts to call over the last two weeks.


Someone at the local DES (Department of Economic Security) office suggested that I write a letter to straighten things out. I did so last week, and they helpfully faxed it to the right place. Result: a further hold was placed on my file, pending resolution. "You're going to have to talk to them in person - on the phone, I mean," a DES employee told me yesterday.

I explained that I hadn't been able to get through on the phone. That's when she suggested that I come in at 8 AM Friday morning and use their direct line phone, hanging up and letting it redial as many times as it took to get through. She told me that the first word I would hear on a successful call would be "Welcome," and to hang up as soon as I got anything else. When I did get through, the number to press would be 4. I would then be on hold for perhaps 20 minutes, maybe longer, but would need to keep holding. Hey, I had no intention of hanging up if I ever got through!

Now, let me tell you about my morning today. I walked into the DES office at about 8:01 AM, but the DES employee from the previous afternoon, who said she would be there and willing to help me get set up on the phone, was nowhere to be seen. I found the directly line phone myself, sat down and started dialing. About 50 minutes later at 8:54 AM, after dozens of "Thank you..." messages, busy signals and "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and dial again" recordings, I finally heard the welcome word, "Welcome....." At 10:20 AM, after a further hour and six minutes of jazzy hold music, friendly recorded apologies for the delay and notices that the 7-week extension could not be filed by phone, I got through to a person!

And she was wonderful. She read and understood what was in my file, asked all the right questions, and researched my 2008-2009 work history, determining that I was indeed eligible for a new benefit claim, at the same compensation level as my previous claim. I had been worried that the new claim would be effective today or even later, but no, she set the start date at the end of May 2009. All those weeks in between that I filed for without immediate success will now be paid, less my gross wages from St. Michael's.

As you can imagine, this is all a big relief. John had been talking about all the cutbacks we would have to make if this didn't go through, assuming I didn't get a job soon. John has no great hopes about the job market right now, but at least my safety net is back in place for the next five months. I can find a job by then - can't I?

Well, we'll see. Meanwhile, I expressed my gratitude to Deputy 771, verbally presenting her with "imaginary flowers and virtual cookies."

"Thank you, they're lovely!" she said.

I'm not telling you all this as criticism of the Arizona Unemployment Insurance department or its personnel, or DES folks, or even the AZ UI web site. The glitch in my online claim was frustrating, sure, and perhaps needs tweaking. It could be that it was programmed to not go through if the file is set on hold, pending a telephone contact. If so, it would be nice if the web site could be scripted to say so.

Nor am I criticizing the ARRA phone system (I swear to you, though, one of those Rs stands for Rapid!). The truth is that the state is swamped with claims in the current economy. They need and are hiring more people to work the phones, and I have no doubt that the telephone infrastucture itself isn't up to the workload. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the whole system is a big, confusing, frustrating mess!

Are things getting better? Well, I have hope that the UI situation will improve with the economy and with the influx of new staff, and things certainly got better today for me personally. Meanwhile, I can point to a different state department where things are already much, much better than they were. For a number of years now, the Motor Vehicle Department has had a website called Service Arizona. Using it means you almost never have to make a trip to MVD to renew vehicle registration, replace a missing one, or even order a vanity plate. It's fast, it's clearly and simply laid out, and it works great. As someone who in the old days sometimes sat in the MVD office for two hours on a workday, it's a huge, huge improvement.

How about you? Have you had generally good experiences with your local MVD or DMV, courts, water department, social services or other agency? Is it getting better or worse? Please tell us about it in your blog, with a link back here so people can find each other's entries. Then come back here and leave a link to your entry in the comments below. I'll be back in a week with a roundup of your responses. With your help, I'm sure we can find a number of people with something to say on this subject. Unlike last week....

For Weekend Assignment: #276: Your Alias, I asked you to discuss the idea of a pseudonym or alias, and to create a temporary one for the purpose of your entry. Only Florinda took up the challenge:

I actually use a pseudonym regularly, although technically it's not a pseudonym. I always give my name as Elizabeth (my middle name) at Starbucks, because spelling out Florinda gets really old. (Actually, it's spelled like it sounds and it sounds like it's spelled, but still, people have always had trouble with it...maybe that's more because it's unusual than because it's a difficult name, but I've never known for sure.) I've used screen names in a few online forums in the past, but during the last few years, I've almost always been online under my real name. I never intended to blog under a pseudonym, because if I ever want it to lead to anything, it all has to come together as part of the body of my written work.

That's it! I hope this week's Assignment is more to your liking. Florinda will be out of town, so I'm counting on YOU to participate, okay? Thanks!



barrettmanor said...

I'm utterly swamped right now, but I'm going to try to write something in the next few days. I'm glad you're getting checks. Texas is one of the states that has run dry.

If you don't have a response from me by Tuesday, please nudge me!

barrettmanor said...

I actually wrote an entry! And now my permalinks aren't working. Here's the main URL:

Mike said...

Okay, I'm up. Sorry about last week. I completely forgot what day it was until it was too late.