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Phone line eases benefits process

November 27, 1996

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer

Waiting in long lines at the unemployment office may become a thing of the past, if a pilot program in Hagerstown is successful.

The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's division of employment in Hagerstown on Monday began taking unemployment insurance claims over the telephone.

In the past, people filing for unemployment benefits were required to report to the office in person.

"We're always looking at measures to make things more efficient," said Marco Merrick, the agency's public information officer. "Filing by telephone will free up more time for everyone."

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The Hagerstown office is the only one in the state offering the service under a six-month pilot program. It will be determined later whether the service will become a permanent feature in Washington County and across the state.

"I really believe it's going to be well received by customers," said Shanon Wolf, manager of the Hagerstown office.

Pennsylvania has had a similar service in place for more than a year. Under PAT, or Pennsylvania Teleclaims, claimants can call a toll-free number or dial any of 60 locations around the state for unemployment benefit information. The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All but initial claims can be filed by phone from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Under the Pennsylvania system, claimants filing for unemployment benefits for the first time must appear at their local office in person. They can use the phone service after that by accessing their personal identification number.

"Future plans are on the drawing board to file new claims by phone too," said John Currie, of the state Department of Labor and Industry in Harrisburg.

Since the program was started in Pennsylvania, agencies have logged more than 5.5 million calls, according to Currie.

During the first three days that the phone service was available in Hagerstown, employment division staff noticed that filing claims by phone is faster, Wolf said. Filing by phone also allows individuals to save time and travel expenses and devote more time to finding a job.

"So far we're really pleased in terms of the convenience," Wolf said.

With nearly 12,000 claims a year handled by the Hagerstown office, Wolf said the new phone system will allow the staff to control the volume more efficiently. Also, there are no security issues to deal with when taking claims by phone, she said.

Incoming calls will be answered by agency representatives, not the interactive voice response machines used by Pennsylvania. Telephone claims, including initial claims, will be taken Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Claims must be filed by the unemployed person. A series of questions will be asked to verify the caller's identity.

Those who prefer to file in person may go to the Hagerstown office, located in Suite 100 of the Elizabeth Hager Center, 14 N. Potomac St., between 8 and 11 a.m. The office will be open for other services.

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