Employment Security official addresses website, phone delays and interruptions

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Inside the North Carolina Division of Employment Security building at 700 Wade Avenue in Raleigh, Lockhart Taylor finds himself hard at work trying to solve his current challenge: an increase in the number of unemployment claims that have been filed as a result of COVID-19.

"This has affected the entire state of North Carolina," Taylor said, So it was really hard for us to see this coming."

RELATED: Workers unemployed due to COVID-19 experiencing trouble filing for benefits

Serving as the agency's assistant secretary, Taylor has been around for the recession of the 2000s and Hurricane Florence in 2018. During the recession, the department paid out $2.5 billion dollars in benefits to approximately 650,000 North Carolinians. For Florence, only 2,200 residents were paid out with the state distributing $2.15 million dollars.

"We deal with disasters regularly. We know when a hurricane season is coming up. We know when a storm is forming and then that's gives us an opportunity to kind of evaluate our systems to make sure everything is up and functioning," Taylor said. "But, the impact of Covid-19 came with little time to prepare."

"Last week at this time, our world was different," Taylor recollected. "We were taking 3,000 claims a week. Our call center wait time was probably under 3 minutes. And the volume was nowhere near what the flood is right now."

Currently, users are said to be waiting between 2 to 3 hours on the phone. Others are concerned their application may not be successful due to error messages on the website.

"These are the type of things that we have to hear about," the assistant secretary said. "Our primary job now is getting this system to where it can handle the volume of individuals who are accessing our system right now."

A department spokesperson said for the week of March 16 to 20, the agency has received approximately 42,000 claims for unemployment benefits -- with 85 percent of applicants identifying COVID-19 as their reason for separation.

When an applicant files a claim online and gives a reason for separation, the agency then contacts that person's employer to verify the separation explanation. Applicants then are eligible to receive up to 12 weeks of benefits pay at up to $350 per week. The average applicant receives $264 dollars a week.

Taylor is hesitant to say when or if that dollar amount of length of benefits would be increased. Other states offer up to 26 weeks.

"I would hate to say confident," Taylor said. "If I were to go with my gut, I believe there probably would be an effort being put forth by others to find ways of providing individuals with additional weeks of eligibility."

Either the North Carolina legislature or lawmakers on Capitol Hill have the authority to adjust those benefits.

One single mother attempted to walk into the employment security office on Friday morning hoping to get some answers. However, a security guard greeted her in the lobby.

Of the phone and website issues, Taylor said the department is hiring 50 additional people and has already received help from other departments within the agency and other areas of state government to assist with the influx. He is also looking at moving to a cloud-based phone system that would allow representatives locally and in other states to answer and assist with incoming calls.

"I would hope by the middle to end of next week that we would have things greatly improved," Taylor said. "But we're getting better every day. The issues we had on Wednesday with the initial flood got better on Thursday. And as of this morning, until I found out about the garbled messaging on the call center, things were running better."

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology has been helping the department with reported phone and website deficiencies.

"The last thing I want to do is to come in here and try to make any excuses for what our system is doing," he said.

Taylor suggested, "If we can get individuals to not call the system not to call just to check on the status of the claim and try to free that system up for individuals who may not have access to a computer and need assistance filing their claim online. But we prefer individuals to go online and file a claim so we can get started on that process."

A problem solved for him will be when North Carolinians can, "Return to some sort of normalcy until everything turns around in the state. Which we hope will be soon. But it's just hard for me to say at this time."
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