Massachusetts Online Unemployment Help Still Ponderous

PITTSFIELD — Last week, winding up his tenure as interim executive director of BerkshireWorks, John Barrett III was on the front lines at the career center, helping unemployment-benefits seekers navigate the still problem-plagued state website, UI Online, and TeleCert, the automated phone system for filing and updating claims.

This week, Barrett, 66, is preparing to file for jobless benefits himself and remains deeply distressed by how many hoops newly unemployed workers have to jump through in order to start receiving checks while they seek new positions.

Barrett, the former North Adams mayor who lost his re-election bid to Richard Alcombright on Nov. 3, 2009, after 26 years in the post, then served Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto as a consultant. In June 2011, Ruberto appointed him as executive director of BerkshireWorks, the career center with offices in Pittsfield and North Adams, under a two-year contract.

While Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi kept him on as an interim head, he chose not to consider Barrett for the permanent post. Instead, he appointed William Monterosso, who began his assignment on Tuesday as the new director. The former Pittsfield resident was most recently executive director of the West Virginia Association of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Barrett had taken heat from the state Labor Department as the first official to sound an alert last June that the Department of Unemployment Assistance’s new website about to be launched was in big trouble.

“It wasn’t a gut feeling, it was just my years in politics dealing with the public and the facts,” he said during a conversation at a local cafe. He contended that state officials from Secretary of Labor Joanne Goldstein on down didn’t want him or anyone else to discuss potential problems with the rollout of the website last July 1.

“They just wanted to spring it on the public,” Barrett recalled. “And I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said it was wrong.” After The Eagle reported his concerns, Barrett received a dressing-down phone call from Alice Sweeney, director of the state Department of Career Services, reprimanding him for talking to the news media.

That department oversees one-stop career service centers such as BerkshireWorks, which is operated by the Berkshire Training and Employment Program. Although BTEP partners with the state Department of Career Services, the executive director and the BerkshireWorks staff are not state employees, and the career center is funded primarily by the federal government. However, the executive director is appointed by the mayor of Pittsfield.

“They went bonkers,” said Barrett, referring to state officials who lambasted him for “inappropriate and wrong” statements to The Eagle.

Ironically, on Barrett’s last day of work last Friday, Goldstein announced her resignation to take an administrative position at Northeastern University in Boston.

Last summer’s launch of the $46 million website crafted by Deloitte Consulting to handle claims and manage benefits caused prolonged delays and frustrating glitches for thousands of jobless applicants. The site’s unveiling was nearly two years late and came in $6 million over budget.

The state’s automated phone center was overwhelmed by anxious claims-seekers unable to navigate the online system.

“The numbers skyrocketed we were averaging over 400 people a week, most of them with unemployment insurance problems they couldn’t get solved,” said Barrett.

Before the state added staff to its call-in center, some applicants were kept on hold for hours, Barrett noted. Others had to wait eight weeks or even 15 weeks to begin receiving checks.

“These are people who lost jobs through no fault of their own,” said Barrett. “People were coming in saying their lives have been ruined. I’ve seen people break down because they can’t pay their mortgage, their medical bills, their insurance.”

State officials had been warned by a number of local job-center leaders to straighten out the phone system because of a likely deluge of callers, Barrett said.

While the problems appeared to ease last fall after local career centers were given more authority by the state Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) to handle claims, Barrett maintained that delays in resolving problems with benefits-seekers have persisted, and even worsened.

According to state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli’s office, eight new complaints were received just last week from applicants unable to resolve issues with the DUA. The Lenox Democrat and the rest of the Berkshire delegation opened a public campaign last September urging Labor Secretary Goldstein to double down on efforts to ease the logjam by adding staff at call centers.

“They were leaders,” Barrett said. “Without them, it would be even worse for people because they did step up to the plate.” The legislators signed a strongly worded letter of complaint to Goldstein.

“The secretary was feeling the heat,” Barrett said.

Goldstein, who leaves the post at the end of this month, will be replaced by Rachel Kaprielian, current chief of the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

In a brief interview with The Boston Globe, Goldstein said that the online unemployment benefits system is working fine, and that its troubles were caused by bugs common to new software and systems.

But the state Senate’s Post-Audit and Oversight Committee continues to investigate the problems that required thousands of overtime hours by state employees.

As for the former North Adams mayor, he plans to write a book about the creation of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which he strongly advocated despite a tide of skepticism.

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