Jobless claims drop but Md. employment offices remain busy

ON THE LINE

April 19, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

Barbara Spittler has seen people so frustrated that they throw chairs and trash cans in her office or yell at her at the tops of their lungs.

But the receptionist at the state's employment office in Towson is sympathetic. "I look past the fact they're yelling at me and know they're upset," she said. "I try to tell them what they need to do."

In the last few weeks, the numbers of people seeking unemployment benefits appears to have abated from their peaks in the winter, but claims still are running ahead of last year, according to the Department of Economic and Employment Development.

New claims for benefits were filed by 3,625 workers in the week ending April 6, the most recent period for which figures are available, compared with 3,085 in the same period in 1990.

To handle the increased number of jobless claims, DEED has expanded it own work force. The number of workers processing unemployment insurance claims grew from 623 last year to 695 this year, state officials said.

But even with increased staffing, at times, local DEED offices have been strained to keep up with the need, said Charles O. Middlebrooks, assistant secretary of the Division of Employment and Training. "We really are stretched," he said. "We're not able to serve the public like we would like."

State DEED offices saw their busiest time in January. During the week ending Jan. 12, more than 9,000 people filed new claims, compared with 5,883 new claims during that time in 1990.

"We've been up to our ears with work," said Roger Hallengren, a claims examiner at the Towson DEED office.

In some cases, offices extended hours until evenings and Saturdays. To cope with the increased workload, job service counselors, who normally help unemployed workers find jobs, have been pressed into taking unemployment claims. "We've been coping with the situation, but it has resulted in longer waiting periods," Middlebrooks said.

In some cases, clients were waiting three to four hours for processing, despite automation of the benefit system.

That situation appears to be improving. Dennis Yeagle, manager of the DEED office in Towson, said that lines lately have been smaller. Although the office frequently is still busy on Mondays, the numbers drop as the week goes by. Last Friday only 15 people came to file new claims.

Dawn Piper, who had lost her job at the Maryland Casualty Co. and recently filed for unemployment insurance, said she was surprised at the speed in which her claim was processed. "I thought it was pretty easy," she said. "It's been only a half hour."

A woman who had lost her job in the office of a medical practice also was surprised. "They were amazingly quick. I expected it to take a couple hours. Instead, I was here 20 or 25 minutes."

Yeagle said his workers have noted a change in the applicants. "The nature of the client has been very, very different," he said. "A lot of people that are unemployed are managerial and professional."

The claims of these workers often are more complicated to handle because they include pension or severance benefits. Sometimes, the process can be intimidating for the job service staff who may find themselves counseling clients with more experience and education than they have, Yeagle said.

DEED's resources to cope with the state's jobless include a rapid-response team that goes to the scene of plant layoffs to process claims and provide job counseling. In the last year, the team has been called to help with closings or layoffs at 82 plants in the state affecting nearly 11,000 workers.

DEED added two workers to the rapid-response team, doubling its size to four. Ideally, companies preparing to lay off workers will call the response team first to help establish an efficient system to process unemployment claims and help find them new jobs, said Ronald Windsor, an administrator of DEED's Economic Dislocation Services. Federal law requires companies with 100 or more workers to give employees 60 days notice if they are closing, laying off one third of their work force or terminating more than 500 workers.

In the case of the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group, the company established an office in Woodlawn to assist some 1,200 workers who lost their jobs. DEED representatives worked at the site for several days processing claims.

The increase in unemployment also means more people looking for work and a greater demand on job services. Between July and December 1990, 99,824 contacted job service offices looking for work, up 22 percent compared with 81,971 during the same period in 1989.

Middlebrooks said job service counselors have had to carry the extra burden without extra help. In fact, during 1990 there was a small decrease in counselors.

Their work has been further complicated by the fact that fewer companies are posting openings with the service.

Overall, according to a federal employment formula based on the workload, the state is short 555 DEED workers. But it would be impossible to hire so many additional people because they wouldn't even have computers to use, officials said.

Although the number of people filing new claims has declined in recent weeks, Middlebrooks said it is too soon to tell whether the economy is improving. Throughout much of the spring, the numbers have varied. New claims for the week of March 23 topped 8,000. In the previous week, it was 5,800.

"It's bouncing around," Middlebrooks said. But he added, "There's still plenty of work for us to do."

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