At the start of the pandemic, when some 23 million people were unemployed in April 2020, most state workforce agencies couldn’t handle the sheer volume of calls they were receiving from individuals attempting to file for unemployment benefits.
One single mother, Alia Renée Capodici, who was furloughed from a match-making service in March 2020 told MarketWatch that she called New Jersey’s Division of Unemployment Insurance “10 times a day for weeks.”
“I get the same message that they’re too busy and to call back the next business day every single time,” she said at the time. Her experience unsuccessfully trying to reach the state government agency is hardly unique.
The assistants spent no more than 45 minutes on hold trying to get through. If they got through, they recorded how long it took.
People in New Jersey have the worst shot at connecting over the phone with a live representative for help with unemployment benefits, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, income tax returns and Medicaid.
That’s according to a University of Chicago experiment from Sept 2020 through March 2021. The researchers hired assistants who collectively made 2,000 calls to four government offices (UI, income tax, Medicaid, and SNAP) for each state.
The assistants spent no more than 45 minutes on hold trying to get through. If they got through, they would hang up almost immediately and record how long it took. If not, they would indicate that “no representative was reached.”
The best and the worst
In New Jersey, the assistants reached a representative at any of the four agencies less than 20% of the time. Georgia came in a close second. In New Hampshire and Wisconsin, however, over 80% of calls were answered.
“States where a live representative was more likely to be reached when looking for help with a UI application were the same states where a live representative was more likely to be reached for other government services,” the researchers wrote.
Slower phone service did not mean better online services. “We do not find evidence that states compensated for lack of live phone representatives by having better websites or online chat features,” the authors of the report added.
Government agencies, unlike businesses, don’t face competitive pressures “to provide quality customer support,” they wrote. Therefore, they have “very little oversight and incentive to make sure that their call systems are efficient.”
Improving call systems would help reform unemployment insurance claims, the report concluded. (The office of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, and the state’s Labor Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)