By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
HARTFORD — The Department of Labor is preparing to launch a new consumer contact center in mid-July to help get unemployment benefits out more quickly amid a spike in filings due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby reported Friday that the $4 million project, which will add customer service representatives and new communication platform features, remains on schedule.
The Department of Labor closed its Wethersfield headquarters and the 14 American Job Centers because of the coronavirus outbreak, so there has been no place where unemployed people can seek in-person assistance with their claims.
Instead, the labor department has been relying on its online filing system and telephone information lines to handle the unprecedented numbers of unemployment applications and inquiries. The situation has left many filers frustrated as they try to obtain benefits.
The state lost a record 269,200 jobs in April during the peak of the pandemic, according to the latest figures.
“We are still seeing an unprecedented number of claims applications. The consumer contact center will help us more quickly get benefits out to people while still protecting the system from fraud and criminal activity,” Westby said.
The labor department has approximately 100 customer service representative that are shifted between state and federal programs, and roughly 40 staff answering phone calls.
The consumer contact center will add 60 new customer service representatives that can continue to work with applicants via phone and email, plus it includes new text, chat, call back, and virtual assistant features.
MORE THAN 635,722 CLAIMS for unemployment benefits have been received since the start of COVID-19 pandemic, and 617,296 have been processed through Friday.
Westby reported claims processing times are now down to one to two weeks, compared to six weeks during the height of the viral outbreak.
The labor department released a preliminary estimate Thursday that the unemployment rate reached 19% in May. Employment was down 251,400 jobs compared to May 2019
Since March 13, the labor department has disbursed nearly $2.8 billion in standard state benefits and emergency federal benefits.
Weekly state unemployment benefit payments range from $15 to $649. The federal government has been paying an additional $600 in pandemic benefits for claims filed between March 29 and July 25. These federal payments are approaching $1.8 billion.
The labor department has also paid out $38 million in federal benefits to the self-employed, independent contractors, and “gig economy” workers who are otherwise ineligible to collect state benefits.
In addition, the department has disbursed $38 million in emergency federal benefits to unemployed workers who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits.
THE NUMBER OF COVID-19 CASES continued to increase in Connecticut, as the Department of Public Health reported 40 new confirmed and probable cases on Sunday.
There now have been 43,802 laboratory-confirmed cases and 1,953 probable cases of untested patients with symptoms of the disease.
An additional nine coronavirus-associated fatalities brought the death toll to 4,260. There have been 3,401 confirmed deaths of people who tested positive around the time of death and 859 probable deaths.
The number of hospitalizations stood at 149, a drop of one from Saturday.
THE NAUGATUCK VALLEY HEALTH DISTRICT reported Thursday there have been 373 confirmed cases in Naugatuck and 48 in Beacon Falls. There have been 35 confirmed and three probable deaths associated with COVID-19 in Naugatuck and none in Beacon Falls.
As of Friday, the Chesprocott Health District reported there had been 67 cases in Prospect and no coronavirus-related deaths in town.
Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.