Indiana hires more workers for unemployment call center but applicants still wait on hold for hours

Week after week, Amanda Shead logs into a state website to file her unemployment vouchers, but she has not yet received any unemployment benefits. (Submitted photo)
Published:
Updated:

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - When Amanda Shead learned she was being laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the longtime bartender filed for unemployment benefits from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

More than three weeks later, Shead is still waiting for her first unemployment check to arrive, and she has endured hours of frustration trying to get answers from DWD and the call center the department set up to answer questions from people like Shead.

“I’ve tried to call just about every day and it’s a busy signal,” Shead told WTHR Wednesday afternoon. “I finally got through yesterday. I was on hold for 3 hours and 27 minutes, and the woman I talked to, she said ‘Yeah, it’s been a pretty long wait time for everybody.’”

Amanda Shead at the Indianapolis restaurant where she’s worked for 16 years, until she was laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Making matters worse, Shead says the woman who answered her call could not answer her questions and offered to transfer her to someone else at the call center, accidentally dropping her phone call in the process. When she tried to call back, Shead got only a busy signal. And over the past 22 days, she says she has not had any success reaching a DWD employee by mail, e-mail or through the agency’s online chat feature on its website.

“At this point, I just need to talk to somebody. I can’t continue filing vouchers and not getting any benefits. I need assistance from a real live individual and I don’t know how else to contact them,” she said.

Shead is not alone. WTHR has received many similar complaints, and DWD admits many Hoosiers are trying to contact the department without success.

“We know several people have been frustrated because they haven’t been able to get through to the call center in the past week or so,” said Regina Ashley, who hold the title of Indiana’s chief unemployment insurance and workforce solutions officer. “We are asking you to be patient with us.”

DWD offers online briefing to answer questions

Ashley made the comments Wednesday morning when she and DWD chief of staff Josh Richardson hosted a live online session to discuss issues and answer questions related to unemployment insurance. During the Facebook Live presentation, Ashley said the state was being bombarded with new unemployment claims – 146,000 last week compared to approximately 2,000 or 3,000 new claims during a more traditional week – and is adding more call center workers to deal with the increase.

“We are currently adding agents to that. As of yesterday, we added an additional 100 agents, so we are hoping you’ll be able to get through and get your questions answered,” she said.

Thousands of people attended the live web briefing and thousands more have watched it online. Many welcomed news that DWD is adding staff. Many others were still frustrated, leaving angry comments online during the presentation.

“Why does it keep hanging up on us? We wait for hours and then when they answer, they say they can't help us and will transfer us then it hangs up on us,” one of the viewers wrote.

More than 3,000 people offered comments on the DWD web briefing, and many of those comments are questions from unemployed Hoosiers who are anxiously awaiting their unemployment benefits. The department says it will host more web sessions in the future to keep Hoosiers informed and to answer questions about unemployment insurance.

Best days to avoid delays

Ashley suggested individuals who want to reduce their wait times and service-related issues contact the department later in the work week. Submitting vouchers on Sundays and trying to call DWD on Mondays are not advised because those are the busiest times when the system is bogged down, she said.

Richardson asked applicants to wait three weeks before calling DWD to check on their benefits, adding that “normal processing time” is needed to give DWD an opportunity to contact each applicants’ employer before approving a benefit payout.

“Please wait until that end of that 21 days before you even start to worry,” he said. “There is a timeframe we have to allow an employer to respond before we can pay your benefits. If that’s the only issue that’s holding your claim, once that timeframe runs out, which I think is about 13 days from the date of your filing, once that timeframe runs out we’re going to automatically get rid of that issue. Now if there are other issues holding your claim, then potentially you could wait a little longer for your decision. But I think there are a lot of people out there on the other side of this issue who saw that issue and then one day all of a sudden their benefits showed up. That’s because that issue is gone. So you don’t need to call us due to that … issue. We’re just simply waiting until your employer’s time to respond has passed and the benefits will automatically then be released at that point and time.”

He said the state has paid more than 200,000 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits in the past three weeks, attempting to reassure Hoosiers that the state’s unemployment insurance system is indeed working.

Extra $600 weekly for out-of-work Hoosiers

Richardson also addressed questions about the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that Congress approved through the CARES Act. That will give workers laid off due to COVID-19 an extra $600 per week in unemployment assistance. And today, we found out unemployed Hoosiers should start getting that money in about two weeks.

“We haven’t implemented that yet. We’re targeting April 20 as the week where we believe we can add those $600 payments to your benefit amounts, and it will be retroactive to that week ending March 29,” Richardson explained. “So as you’re waiting and these weeks are going through, know those dollars are accumulating. It’s just going to be a matter of us implementing before we can push that out.”

Indiana DWD has provided information on its website to help out-of-work Hoosiers understand the unemployment money they are eligible for under both the state and federal programs. The website includes detailed information about how to apply for unemployment insurance and the information you will need to do so.

Hoosiers wanting to speak with a DWD employee should still expect very long wait times. Despite hiring more staff, DWD has posted a prominent disclaimer on its website highlighted in bright orange to warn unemployment applicants about delays at its call center: “Due to extremely high call volume, waits will be longer than usual. We are responding as quickly as possible.”