Hard times bring more jobless claims to Missouri, but online system eases workloadBY TRUDY WALSH
| GCN STAFF
Buddy, can you spare a job? That's the tune many workers are singing this year, as companies lay off hundreds of thousands of employees.
The number of workers filing new claims for state unemployment insurance this spring hit 408,000, a five-year high, the U.S. Labor Department reported in April. Some economists predict the unemployment rate, now at 4.3 percent, will rise to around 4.7 percent by August.
The Missouri Labor Department is offering some online relief to the newly unemployed on its Web site at www.dolir.state.mo.us/es
. Visitors to the site can sign up for unemployment benefits by setting up a personal identification number and filling out an online form with their name, Social Security number, date of birth and last day worked. Since the site went up Dec. 18, 5,870 people signed up for unemployment benefits online.Call toll free
Missouri also offers an interactive voice response (IVR) system that lets users file unemployment claims over an 800-number phone service.
'If everything went well, callers were on the phone for 10 minutes,' said Randy Wilkerson, computer information technology II supervisor for the Missouri Labor Department's Information System division. 'It took the call center employee about seven minutes to interview the caller.'Site funding
In 1999, Missouri received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Labor Department to develop an Internet system for initial unemployment claims, Wilkerson said. Missouri officials used the money to build up the department's Web infrastructure, and improve its firewall, servers and software.
Wilkerson and his team worked with IBM's Design Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for a few weeks in April 2000, to develop a prototype Web application. Wilkerson's staff also learned some new skills to prepare for the Web filing.
'We had just started working with static Web pages,' Wilkerson said. The people who had been creating and maintaining the Labor Department's Web pages had been moved to another department, he said.
'We had some basic Hypertext Markup Language skills and a little Java. So we were scrambling to get our skills up,' he said. 'But we did it.'
Although the claim site seems simple enough, a stark black font on a white background, it uses a lot of Java script behind the scenes. The data is stored in IBM VSAM files and runs under CICS on an IBM System/390 mainframe. The Web interface draws data via an IBM WebSphere server.Match the numbers
The site checks an applicant's personal identification number, Social Security number, name and date of birth. All the elements must match, Wilkerson said. If not, the site tells the visitor to call the regional phone center. Special situations such as an interstate claim or federal employment are also directed to the phone system.
But if the data is a match, the system sends an information packet to the claimant and the employer. There still might be a dispute between employer and claimant that needs to be resolved, Wilkerson said. Perhaps the person wasn't laid off but quit. 'We can't resolve those kind of issues through a computer,' Wilkerson said. 'Not yet, anyway.'
Wilkerson said he is hoping for a reduction in the call center's workload, which is down about five percent since the Web site's debut in December, Wilkerson said. And although the economy has not crashed, Wilkerson describes it as 'kind of shaky. The department is concerned that the call center would be really overwhelmed if the economy took a dive.' The Web site is a way to reduce the center's workload.