Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby outside the state Labor Department (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

WETHERSFIELD, CT – The state Department of Labor has received more than 402,000 unemployment applications from people who are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and agency officials continue scrambling to answer questions from a public that is frantic for answers. 

As of Thursday, officials said 327,000 have been processed and they have issued over $230 million in benefits, but that’s no consolation for those who have been unemployed and without any income for weeks.

Social media is overflowing with posts expressing frustration about the lack of benefits and communication because there’s nowhere to get answers. There’s no call center to use for questions benefits and due to social distancing there’s no ability to visit a jobs center.

Deputy Commissioner Dante Bartolomeo said this weekend they expect to reduce a six-week wait for benefits down to one week. She acknowledged the frustration about the lack of a traditional call center.

She said as recently as 2015 there had been a call center staffed with about 130 employees. She said technology upgrades and retirements eroded that number to five people and it’s no longer sustainable.

“We went to an online system,” that allows people to file their applications, as well as have in-person access at the 18 American Jobs Centers, Bartolomeo said.

“The challenge we face here is that we had to close to the public,” she said.

She said employees are answering about 300,000 emails per day at the online assistance center.

Other problems stem from the 40-year-old COBOL system, which was a year away from being upgraded and retired when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“Our new automation programming has allowed us to process over 100,000 applications for benefits, which has made a tremendous difference since the agency is handling more applications that we would typically receive in two years,” Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said in a statement. “Although we continue to receive thousands of new applications every day, the new automation allows our staff to focus on more complex claims that must be manually processed.”

The additional $600 weekly benefit that was part of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation will start appearing in checks on April 27 and will be retroactive.

The agency also will begin accepting claims April 30 from self-employed individuals who weren’t previously allowed to file claims because they don’t pay into the system.

A number of individuals have complained they’ve been unable to change their return-to-work date so the system is not accepting their claims.

Westby said the department is aware of the problem and if there is a system fix for it they will be sending out an email this weekend with instructions on how to fix your claim.

Bartolomeo said they are manually correcting some applications if the individual has not followed the instructions. There are about 500 to 1,000 of those fixes being done each day.

She said many of the emails sent to applicants are ending up in spam or junk folders, so the department is asking people to regularly check those folders. Or they can go to the online assistance center for help.

She said people are also trying to be very honest in their filings, but if someone notes they are unable to work one week then the system automatically puts a stop to their benefits.

“When we’re seeing those we’re taking batches of these and we’re manually going into those stops and looking at them,” Bartolomeo said. “But it is a one-on-one manual process to reset.”

Officials also said the agency plans to have the 13-week federal extension of benefits under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment program in operation by mid-May.