In a recent statement from the Rhode Island Department of Labor & Training, seven of the fifty-one employees laid off last July are being recalled. DLT Director Fogarty praised both the Governor and the United States Department of Labor for their concern for customer service. Since the recent staff reduction, contact with the DLT’s Unemployment Insurance sector has gone from difficult to nearly impossible. While it is valid for DLT administration to celebrate the return of the seven staff members to help bail out the drowning department, it may be more appropriate to call this recall what it truly is: a good start.
Negotiations between the state and federal departments have resulted in the U.S. Department of Labor agreeing to allow allocation of approximately $500,000 for human resources from the UI Modernization Fund. This pool of money was initially intended for technological and automated system upgrades. However, given the drastic nature of the staff cuts – about two-thirds of the call center representatives’ jobs eliminated – the sheer volume of calls was too much to handle. Rhode Island is still holding strong with the second highest levels of unemployment in the country. The workload did not diminish and the technology did not improve on the scale to allow for the decimated staff to keep up.
SEIU Local 401 President Lynn Tipton commented on the recall stating, “Long waits and delayed processing of services have continued for Rhode Island’s unemployed. The recall of 7 Senior Employment &Training Interviewers at DLT is a start in helping relieve some of the repercussions as a result of the original layoff of 57 workers in July. RIESA Local 401 SEIU continues to urge administration in locating more funds and continue the recall until they have an adequate workforce to serve its customers.”
As a laid off DLT employee I, myself, can attest to the customer service nightmare caused by the sudden elimination of fifty-one call center representatives out of a total of just over eighty. Unemployment Insurance Senior Employment & Training Interviewers – the actual job classification title of those laid off – consists of far more than answering the phones and processing internet claims for Unemployment Insurance. The details of the back office functions are intricate and fairly uninteresting to the layperson. Suffice it to say, taking a claimant from initial contact through to full understanding and timely and consistent payment of benefits requires time, care and follow-up. Answering the phones is merely the first of many steps toward giving quality customer service.
Is this infusion of seven trained and ready staff members a needed boost to the DLT’s UI sector in crisis? Yes. Does it merit appreciation of those who negotiated for the funds to be allocated where they are best spent right now: human resources? Absolutely. Is this a small victory for union labor/management relations at a time when they feel strained? Definitely. The union made a case that proved valid and it is the top seven in union seniority that are being called back.
On a related note, a non-union position was posted for an administrator of workforce development programs at a salary approximately twice that of a single one of the recalled employees. Dare I ask from where came the funding for that job?
Will these seven returning employees be able to ride in and save the customer service battle being valiantly fought in vain by the small troupe of remaining reps? Probably not. Even the Greeks at Thermopylae had three hundred Spartans. The DLT has far fewer, even with the seven returning. There are still over 60,000 unemployed Rhode Islanders seeking help in the areas of labor and training.
But seven is a good start and will hopefully lead to more being recalled in the future. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not one of the seven being recalled at this time. But as one who is currently collecting Unemployment Insurance benefits while seeking full-time employment I can say that anything that will enhance my customer service experience when having to make contact with the department gets my full support.
On behalf of Rhode Island’s Unemployed citizens I would like to thank Director Fogarty, Governor Chafee and the others who helped in securing the funding to make our DLT experience a little easier. And we implore you to continue in this direction of fighting for funding to help those most in need.