LIANE HANSEN, host:
State unemployment insurance is the safety net meant to help people get by when they lose their jobs. But last year more than half of all states failed to meet existing guidelines for timely benefit payments. Now the federal government wants to make states more accountable. From San Francisco, Rachel Dornhelm has more.
RACHEL DORNHELM: The list of states that have fallen behind on mailing initial unemployment benefits is long: California, Rhode Island, Arizona, Virginia, 32 states in all. In the worst-performers from January to September of last year, around a third of claimants waited more than three weeks for their first check. The federal guidelines recognize that sometimes there will be delays, but they say that number is too high. About an eighth of recipients experiencing that sort of delay is reasonable, they say, certainly not a third.
Assistant Secretary JANE OATES (Department of Labor): We understand the pressure that states are under, but there's probably no better time to address some of these problems than when you're pushing the stress points.
DORNHELM: That's Jane Oates, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Labor Department, which helps fund state unemployment insurance programs. She says improving states' performance and holding them more accountable is a priority of the Obama administration.
For California resident Arleen Stanton, any efforts will feel too late.
Ms. ARLEEN STANTON: It says: Our volume is very high due to the high demand for our service.
DORNHELM: Stanton is reading a printed email she pulled from an inch-thick green folder. Earlier this year, she was laid off from her job with a county health authority. Like millions of other Americans, she filed for unemployment. The checks would be a lifeline while she looked for a new job. They'd help her support two other family members and cover the mortgage.
Ms. STANTON: The groceries, the utilities, the things that come up, such as car insurance came up during this period of time.
DORNHELM: But for Stanton, filing for unemployment was just the first step into a maze of confusing correspondence and dialing and redialing the phone � trying to get through to a real live human being at the state Employment Development Department, or EDD.
Ms. STANTON: Unequivocally, I have never been able to get through on the phone.
DORNHELM: After a month without a check, Stanton was forced to dip into her retirement savings. After two months, an unemployment check finally arrived for the maximum benefit of $475 dollars a week.
George Wentworth, policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, says while high demand is part of the problem, the system is supposed to be a safety net.
Mr. GEORGE WENTWORTH (Policy Analyst, National Employment Law Projects): It really is the first line of defense against poverty. The difference between waiting three weeks for that first check and waiting five or six weeks is enormous for an unemployed worker who has limited savings.
DORNHELM: Wentworth says one problem is many states are working with decades-old computer systems. He says there's also an issue of staffing. In the 1990s, many unemployment agency jobs were cut when the Labor Department led a transition to call centers and more automated processes.
Mr. WENTWORTH: And now that we are seeing sort of unprecedented volumes of activity, states are having a hard time ramping back up, rebuilding capacity to handle this level of activity.
DORNHELM: In California, EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy estimates the unemployment department has increased staff around 40 percent in the last year to handle the flood of claims.
Ms. LOREE LEVY (Spokeswoman, EDD): The problem is we have to spend a good five months in training them. So, it's really right about now that we're starting to get a lot more proficient staff onboard to be able to help us with this continuing high demand for benefits.
DORNHELM: Levy says in California the demand is extreme. For the first nine months of 2009, the EDD handled 4.6 million new claims, nearly double the number for the same period in 2008. Levy concedes that it's very tough for clients to reach the department on the phone, though she says the situation is improving.
Ms. LEVY: Some people have to redial maybe as much as 42 times before they could get through on average. We had call huge blockage. Now, it's cut in half, sometimes it's as little as maybe 13 repeat dials, 17 repeat dials on average.
DORNHELM: Like all states that have not met federal guidelines, California has written a required corrective action plan. The National Employment Law Project's Wentworth says often states submit these plans and there is no follow-up or enforcement from the feds. He says after all the problems in this recession, now he's optimistic the system will get a big picture review by the Labor Department, or even Congress.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Dornhelm.
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