HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's labor secretary told lawmakers on Tuesday that state police are investigating whether the state's hotline for jobless benefits was sabotaged, even as she assured them that the problems plaguing it in recent months are improving.
Labor and Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway said at a legislative hearing in the Capitol that she considers the phone system "largely fixed" and expects to see call volume continue to drop.
"I think this next six months will be critical," she said. "We are working on this around the clock."
Calls to the state unemployment compensation centers skyrocketed in September to 8 million, up from about 900,000 a year earlier. The calls exceeded 15 million in November but were down to fewer than 7 million last month.
Hearthway said police were notified because of the volume of calls, and there also were questions about where they originated.
"We don't know whether there's any intentional activity or not," Hearthway said. Police may not be able to determine whether sabotage was involved, she said. A call seeking comment from state police headquarters was not immediately returned.
Hearthway said whether the overall problems are improving will become clearer in a month or two, because January and February are traditionally busy months for unemployment claims.
She said the situation was worsened by a $30 million reduction in federal funding, support that could fall by an additional $10 million next year.
She also blamed a new phone system for exacerbating the problems, along with cellphone applications that automatically redial after reaching a busy signal.
"It did choke the system and probably explains a good chunk of the 15 1/2 million calls that erupted in November," she said.
Hearthway said she hoped to have more claimants use the Internet, as is more widely done in other states. Florida, she said, requires claims to be made over the Internet.
"The phone system is largely fixed at this point, and I feel we've turned the corner," she told legislators.
Having people contact the agency through a fax has helped the situation, Hearthway said. She told lawmakers that faxes from legislative offices go to a dedicated line, with its own team, as opposed to the fax number given out to the wider public. She said Labor and Industry receives about 1,300 faxes a week.
Calls are more frequent earlier in the week, she said, suggesting that people who call on Thursday or Friday are less likely to encounter delays and busy signals. Another tip for callers is to call from landlines, not cellphones. The Labor and Industry Department stopped evening and weekend hours because they were underutilized by the public.
Hearthway said she would look into a suggestion from Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, that the department try displaying its name on incoming calls, so that people know to answer.
An email system for people to contact the unemployment compensation centers should be operational soon, she said.
Senate Labor and Industry Committee Chairman John Gordner, R-Columbia, said he expects the hotline problems to be further discussed during the upcoming budget hearings.