Unemployment phone lines swamped, many can't get through

The number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits rose last week to its highest levels in 26 years, according to a government report released Thursday.

In Missouri, the state's unemployment offices have added extra staff and phone lines to handle the 200,000 plus unemployment claims. But a number of people, like Mindy Swanson, say their phone calls to the unemployment offices are going unanswered.

Like many Americans, Swanson was just laid off. "It has been a financial strain on the family," she said from her mother's home in Columbia where she's living.

Swanson worked for a factory in Mexico, Mo. that made car parts. With the auto industry reeling and the economy crumbling, Swanson was one of many let go. But when she went to apply for unemployment benefits, her calls for help fell on deaf ears - literally.

After six straight hours of calling, getting nothing but recordings, she finally gave up.

"The stress, being laid off to begin with and trying to get through and calling time after time," she said. "I mean we would literally call and hang up and call and hang up all day."

If you file for unemployment, your calls are being answered at the Division of Employment Security. There are three offices in Springfield, Kansas City and Jefferson City.

"We understand the frustration," said Mo. Department of Labor spokeswoman Tammy Cavender. "And we are doing everything we can to address all the calls that are coming in as quickly as possible."

Last December and January they took in just over 62,000 calls locally. During the same time this year, that number jumped to 117,000.

There are 80 employees working at the call center in Jefferson City, an increase from 60 just a few months ago. The extra workers were brought in specifically to deal with the extra demand. In addition to new workers and temps, employees are putting in longer hours and working weekends and holidays just to keep pace.

"It has helped, however we still are receiving an increase in the number of unemployment claims being filed," said Cavender. "So we have the struggle of still receiving claims and trying to work on the backlog that we have."

With Missouri's unemployment now hovering around 7 percent, workers say their call levels are probably going to get worse before they get better. Across the state, unemployment call centers are taking between 3000 and 3500 calls a day. Individual workers sometimes handle as many as 100 calls a day.

You're best bet at talking to a live person is to call on a Friday afternoon. State officials recommend that you log onto their Web site instead of calling. They say their automated call service can answer most of your questions.