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Mass. Unemployment Lines Long With Unresolved Claims

This article is more than 13 years old.

Stacy was laid off from a mail room in Cambridge on March 20. She said her supervisor told her it was because of the economy.

"We was all gonna be laid off, it was nothing we did. At work, they had nothing but good reviews, from my supervisor," she said. "He would definitely send us back there, he would be more than happy to work with us again, but unfortunately, right now, the company's cutting down."

Stacy, who did not want to use her full name because she was concerned it would affect her claim, immediately filed for unemployment, but after a call with an adjuster she received a letter saying she was denied because she voluntarily quit. She had no idea why, because she said she has had a good employment record.

"There was five of us that got fired that day," she said. "I’m the only one who hasn’t received my unemployment yet. I’m the only one denied."

She requested a hearing and received a letter saying she would get one, but it did not specify a date. Three months later, Stacy is now in line with 5,600 people in Massachusetts who have unresolved claims and are waiting for a hearing. That is almost three times as many people who were waiting at the same time last year.

As unemployment has grown, so have the number of disputes over claims. Typically an unemployment claim is agreed to by both sides and with one phone call the benefits are approved and a check is in the mail. But if your employer says you were fired for cause or otherwise don’t deserve benefits, and you disagree – you will be in for a long wait.

Secretary for Labor and Workforce Development Suzanne Bump said the surge in claims has been hard for the department to keep up with.

"There are more employers who are disputing claims, more contests over whether someone actually was fired or whether they quit," Bump said. "Between more claims being filed and more claims being contested, the times to get a disputed claim resolved definitely has increased."

It now takes more than five months to resolve a claim, and during that time a person is not receiving a check from the state. Advocates for the poor find that unacceptable.

"This subsistence income is like the equivalent of oxygen," said Margaret Monsell, with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. "And imagine if someone said, 'We're going to cut off your oxygen for four months, but after four months you'll have all the oxygen you would have had for the previous months.' That just wouldn't work. These people need the money when they need the money."

If Stacy wins her claim, and statistics say she has a 50 percent chance, she will collect unemployment back to when she filed. But right now, as the supporter of four children, she is desperate.

"Everything is cut off, all my bills. My light bill is getting ready to cut off, everything is being cut off," she said. "I have no money coming in, my children need things, and I have other bills and obligations that I need to handle, and I can't handle them."

The Labor Department recognizes the backlog is a problem and has hired eight new hearing officers. But those who work with the system say it still will not be enough. The department is getting 600 new appeals to unemployment judgments a week — that is three times as many cases as they can hear.

This program aired on June 23, 2009.


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