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Jobless benefits soon just a phone call away

April 08, 1997

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Franklin County, Pa., residents who find themselves out of work might soon be able to dial the state employment office and start their checks on the way by telephone instead of having to visit the office in person.

Pennsylvania is about to join a growing number of states whose residents sign up for jobless benefits by telephone, said Jack McGettigan, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry in Harrisburg, Pa.

McGettigan said his agency will use a $900,000 U.S. Labor Department grant to launch the state's first Interactive Voice Response System. From three to eight regional centers will be set up around the state to handle the calls. The system will begin as a pilot project somewhere in the state by the end of the year, he said. The location of the first regional center has not been established, McGettigan said.

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"They can be anywhere in the state," McGettigan said. "There won't be any inconvenience to people seeking benefits."

The Labor Department is providing money to encourage states to enhance their service with technology, McGettigan said.

None of the state's 80 job centers, including the Cumberland Valley Job Center in Chambersburg, will be closed, he said. The center moved to new headquarters on Norland Avenue last year.

McGettigan said the consolidation should not cost any jobs, although some employees may have to relocate.

The new system requires users to have a touch-tone telephone, but not all residents have them, said G.A. "Tony" Meckley, 53, manager of the job center in Chambersburg. He said some residents lack the skills to use the system.

"What concerns me the most is that under the system we have now we are in effect an advocate for the people who come in," Meckley said. "Many of them are honest, hard-working people who lost their jobs who have marginal communicating skills. We take them by the hand and lead them through the process now. That won't happen by telephone," he said. said.

McGettigan said the new system will still help people. "We will maintain a human presence in all the job centers so people who need help can get it," McGettigan said.

He said about 65 percent of all state residents who collect unemployment benefits maintain their weekly benefits by telephone.

The problem is those signing up for the first time. Agency employees talk to new clients in person to verify their eligibility for benefits. The new system will address that, but neither Meckley nor McGettigan could say how it will work.

"It's still in the planning stages," McGettigan said.

Meckley said his office reported 150 new accounts in January, bringing the total number of persons seeking jobless benefits for the month to 2,300. Franklin County's unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, representing 3,900 residents receiving benefits.

Fulton County residents sign up for benefits at the Bedford County office.

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