Saturday, October 13, 2012

Quiet Desperation

A slice of dialog from the movie A Christmas Story came to me full-force yesterday.

In the movie, Ralphie and his brother Randy go to Higbee's Department Store to see Santa. The siblings approach the line, relatively short, and prepare to see the Big Kahuna.

They are interrupted, however, by a gentleman who calls out to them: "Hey, kid! The line ends here. It begins there!" He motions over his shoulder to indicate several hundred kids eagerly waiting.

Adult Raphie laments in his narration: "The line stretched all the way back to Terre Haute. And I was at the end of it."

This vignette came to me yesterday as I went on a mission to resolve a problem with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Unemployment Compensation program.

In a nutshell, my status was automatically declared "inactive." I was no longer able to file claims, either by computer or phone, thereby cutting off payment.

Not a good scenario.

The online directions I accessed for resolving the problem provided a telephone number for the UC Service Center. I called Monday and was informed that the offices were closed due to the Columbus Day holiday, but that I was welcome to call the next business day, Tuesday, between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

Jim dandy!

I called Tuesday morning and got a busy signal. Tried again a few minutes later and again, the number buzzed busy.

And again.

A few hours later, ditto.

That day, October 09, I tried 15 times to get through. And the number was busy each time.

Okay, I thought, I guess with the holiday the phone traffic has backed up. I'll call again tomorrow.

Wednesday, I dialed 40 times. Nada.

I suspected that perhaps the number was out of service, but as a test, I called after the 4 p.m. cutoff time and it rang through, telling me to call back during regular business hours.

Thursday, I ramped up to 53 times. Zzzt-Zzzt-Zzzt.

I was on the verge of total frustration at this point. There was no other way to resolve this than over the phone, and I couldn't connect!

The continual rap of my head on this brick wall led me to action: Among the materials received through the Unemployment Compensation Office was a list of regional UC offices. I scanned them quickly. One was in Philadelphia. Another was in Allentown.

Thinking that perhaps I could get my problem expedited in Allentown rather than Philadelphia, I drove the 40+ miles northward.

I found the office on W. Hamilton Street and went to the front door. Locked.

I saw a side door and tried it: Success.

I needed to hunt for the Suite 500 listed on the address. I found Suite 400. I found Suite 600. 500 was nowhere to be found. There were signs posted on all doors: This office is for the payment of State and Local Taxes on UC payments only. Do not ring bell unless you are making one of these payments.

Friendly, yes?

I found someone wandering the halls and asked where Suite 500 was. She helpfully pointed me to the right door -- the number had been plastered over with more signage -- and I rang the bell.

A voice responded. I told of my plight and that I was there to resolve a problem.

~sigh~ "Just a moment."

The door opened and a short, gray, elderly woman blazed into the hallway, her State ID dangling fiercely from a lanyard.

"Good morning," I started. "I need help with --"

"I can't help you here," she blasted. "Nobody can help you here. We're not set up for this. People come here all the time with their issues. It's the wrong place. You're in the wrong place."

"Isn't this the Service Center?" I asked.

"Yes. But it's the call Service Center. You can only access help by phone. We are not set up --"

Now I broke in. "But there must be something wrong with the phones. I've been calling for four days and..."

"Not my problem," she countered. "You cannot be here."

This went on for some time until she told me that there were direct lines into the Call Service Center. All I needed to do was go to a CareerLink office.

"Wait," I said, desperate to understand. "I need to drive to the CareerLink office. To access a phone. To get me to the Call Service Center people. Who are right through that door, ten feet away?!?!"

"All of this is in your booklet, sir. If you had read your booklet..."

"Can you give me the address of the nearest CareerLink center?" I asked, no longer interested in her lecture.

She provided it -- the only nice thing she did for me since blowing through the door -- and I left.

I drove through the winding streets of Allentown on the way to the CareerLink center. Had I known this was the solution, I could have gone to the one in nearby Norristown. Instead of one requiring a hour's drive!

I got to the CareerLink center, parked the car, and entered. It was a large, dingy room that smelled of anxiety and hopelessness. The receptionist, trying his best to be cheerful, said that yes, he could direct me to the necessary telephone, but there was a line.

Understatement of the decade.

The line was 30 people long, sitting in a spiral of chairs. The ring led to two telephones that connected permanently with the Customer Service reps. As one claimant finished with his/her issue, the entire line got up, moved one chair closer to the Promised Land, and sat.

I joined the end.

All the way in Terre Haute.

I looked at the faces of my fellow unemployed: Forlorn. Shamed. Bored. Angry. Desperate. Embarrassed. Resigned. Worried.

I understood all those faces.

During the 3+ hours it took for me to wait my turn, several took out cell phones and patiently updated family/friends on their progress. Several small conversations bloomed along the way -- and then quietly died like a weed after a week of no water. The center provided several editions of the local paper, and the steady sound of the flapping of their pages was often the only thing breaking the gloomy silence.

Fortunately, I had thought to bring my Kindle. I passed the time reading.

When I finally got to the phone, I felt like one of those Eastern Europeans who waited hours in line for toilet paper. 

Thankfully, the rep I connected with was able to resolve my problem. Turns out a computer glitch deactivated thousands of recipients all across the state. That explained the jammed lines.

Why the state didn't just a) Inform us via email or website what the problem was; and b) extend the phone hours until the backlog was resolved  (even if it did involve overtime or swing shifts) is a mystery to me.

I'm sure the answer has to do with budgetary restrictions. Or the fact that my solutions involve just plain old common sense.

Something the state often seems to have in very short supply.

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