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Putting technology to work, but expecting too much?

By KRIS HUNDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001


Pat Morris, an out-of-work database administrator in Tampa, knows computers and their limits. And she's worried that Florida is moving its unemployment claims system toward too much reliance on automation without considering the need for a human safety net.

Morris, 50, filled out her claim form online about six weeks ago and has had her claim verified weekly through a centralized electronic voice-mail system. That automated system worked smoothly until recently.

In June, as the state Agency for Workforce Innovation shifted more client services to automated call centers, the phone number that Morris called weekly to verify her eligibility was suddenly out of service. Frantically, she called the local WorkForce office and was given several long-distance numbers to try. Finally, three days later, she connected to the voice-mail service, but the delay in filing will mean a delay in her check.

"This is ludicrous," Morris said. "I know computers and I know that they'll go down. And when the unemployment office computers go down, people have no place to call. And if you don't call, you don't get a check."

Kym Bandy, coordinator of the six WorkForce centers in Hillsborough County, admits that there were problems with the system in June.

"It was horrible," said Bandy, who has been running the Hillsborough offices since October. "We had lots of unhappy people. We managed to give them phone numbers in other cities and they could hook up to the system that way, but it was a long-distance call. Now I'm happy to say it's working."

Bandy said the latest move is part of a long-range state mandate to force the WorkForce center staff to focus on finding people jobs rather than dealing with the minutiae of unemployment claims.

Since filing via the Internet became available in November, more than 24 percent of claims are being done online, Bandy said.

"In October, we were spending 80 percent of our time working with unemployment claims, even filling out forms for people," she said. "Now we should be able to do a better job of helping them find work."

But in Morris' case, that may not be easy. Though she hasn't yet visited a WorkForce center, the computer worker has been scanning online job boards and sending out queries through the local tech community.

"Development jobs are non-existent," said Morris, who has worked in the computer field locally for 20 years and most recently was paid about $70,000 a year. "Pay isn't the issue. There are simply no jobs posted. I've never seen it like this in the past."

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