Sunday, January 18, 2009

Unemployment call center to be built

SALISBURY -- A 20,000 square-foot call center for screening unemployment insurance claims is breaking ground --at an undisclosed Wicomico County location -- and construction can't come fast enough, says the director at the cramped Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations' regional office where the workload has reached record proportions.

Claims for first-time benefits recently doubled in the last year at the Salisbury center, one of five opened a decade ago to consolidate walk-in unemployment insurance services in Maryland counties and enabling victims of unemployment to file claims by phone or on the Internet.
Claims center director James Wolf isn't revealing the 3-acre location of the new call center ---- or the current one, either -- because the facility is structured to render services strictly by telephone or online.

"We've been on the phone system for 10 years; I don't discuss where we are," said Wolf, a 33-year veteran with DLLR. "We absorb a great percentage of the state workload, taking calls from where an operator is available."
Southern Builders has won the contract to erect the single-story building in the Salisbury area. By this fall, the operation should be moving into a space that can comfortably accommodate its 60 workers, with room enough to increase staffing by 30 positions, Wolf said in an interview. Currently, the office rents space to field 20 percent of the state's unemployment insurance claims
Nationwide, applications for first-time claims are expected to rise as economic uncertainty continues. Since last year, the Salisbury center is handling more than 1,000 a week, Wolf said. The number reflects a national recession that last week alone added an additional 500,000 or more Americans to the ranks of the unemployed and further swelled the number of former workers eligible for unemployment insurance. By comparison, the Salisbury office, which consolidated six offices in Easton, Cambridge, Chestertown, Crisfield, Salisbury and Snow Hill, handles between 500 and 600 "during what I call normal times," Wolf says.

"We need more space and we need more people now," he said. "Whether we (hire to capacity) depends on economic conditions down the road, but that is our plan."
Jobs at the Eastern Shore call center, for the most part, start as contractual with an opportunity to become full-time. Pay starts at $13.42 per hour for claims takers and $15.14 per hour for adjudication specialists, the bulk of positions. Many current workers were recruited with call center experience from former Call Center Services and Bar None, an auto loan center, Wolf said.

The new location becomes the last among the state's five centers pre-equipped specifically for call center functions, behind Baltimore, College Park, Cumberland and Towson, he said. "The rub now is that rented space is not enough to add additional staff; we've needed additional space for some time," he said.
"We've had an unprecedented increase in the number of initial unemployment claims."

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