As jobless claims hit record highs, the state agency charged with delivering unemployment benefits has roughly the same funding and staff as it did four years ago, in boom times.
The surge of job seekers has left people waiting in line for hours at employment offices across the state. Phone lines are often busy, and though people can file for benefits online, the system is often slow and prone to crashes.
With the recession deepening and job losses piling up, state officials say prospects are dim for that to turn around any time soon.
“We're working on it very hard,” said Moses Carey Jr., chairman of the N.C. Employment Security Commission. “There's a little bit of stress in the system right now because of the large number of people seeking services from us.”
To help ease the crunch, the commission has hired temporary workers and installed a new phone system, and officials say the massive economic stimulus package before Congress could help.
Asked what more officials could be doing, Carey said, “I think we are doing quite a bit. We're gearing up as the numbers are going up.”
Some frustrated job seekers said that's not enough. Shelby Taylor, 47, of Stanley, had been waiting several hours at the ESC office in Gastonia on Thursday.
Since losing her job at a convenience store in October, she'd tried to file for unemployment twice before. The first time, the computers were down; the second, people were “lined up down the highway.”
“It's a nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” Taylor said.
Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said state officials need to take a closer look, possibly opening temporary offices to ease traffic and coming up with new ways to create jobs.
“We obviously know we have a serious problem now, and from all indications, it's not going to get better anytime soon,” he said.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, who serves on the House Finance Committee, said she's received calls and e-mails about problems at the ESC and has forwarded those complaints to the commission.
Carney said she's not aware of any specific steps to fix the problem but said it needs to be part of upcoming budget talks.
“This is where some of us say, this, we cannot neglect,” she said. “There are no quick answers, and it's really tough stuff. I wish there were a magic pot of money, but there isn't.”
Reached Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue said she wouldn't be able to comment because she was reached too late in the day.
The state has had little time to react to a quickly deteriorating economy.
In 2005, when the unemployment rate was a low 5.3 percent and the number of N.C. workers was almost 220,000 less than it is now, the ESC had 1,792 employees and 93 offices statewide, and traffic moved through easily.
But joblessness hit hard last year. Unemployment surged from a low 4.9 percent in January to 8.7 percent last month, the highest in 25 years. The ESC now has 88 local offices and 1,770 staffers – including 229 temporary workers the agency has added in recent months.
More than 155,900 initial claims were filed statewide last month, up 76 percent from November and nearly triple the number from December 2007, ESC records show.
The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that the number of Americans continuing to claim unemployment insurance for the week ending Jan. 17 was a seasonally adjusted 4.78 million, the highest since records started in 1967. That's an increase of 159,000 from the previous week and worse than economists' expectations.
As a proportion of the work force, the tally of unemployment benefit recipients is the highest since August 1983, a department analyst said.
That's led to problems at local ESC offices. This month, a technical glitch with the phone lines and a flood of unemployed applicants overwhelmed the computer system at the commission, preventing some people from filing claims.
Last fall, there was a backlog of up to 17,000 unemployment benefit claims waiting for verification, officials said.
While the ESC has caught up, some job seekers can still expect to wait several days longer than usual for their benefits, spokesman Andy James said.
The agency's new phone system should help people file claims without visiting an office, James said. Staffers have been working overtime to resolve cases.
The crush has squeezed the ESC's trust fund, too, he said. It hovered around $28 million this week, down from $190.2 million Dec. 31 and almost $1 billion a decade ago. Like many other states, North Carolina will probably have to borrow money from the federal government at some point, James said.
Carey, the chairman, said the $825 billion economic stimulus plan being considered by Congress will help, too, allowing the ESC to hire more people, link workers with jobs and train unemployed workers.
Waits can be long in South Carolina, too. In Lancaster County, where the local unemployment rate has risen to 13.9 percent, waits at the ESC office can be as long as an hour, office director Lynda Burke said.
“I grew up in Lancaster and this is the worst I've ever seen it,” she said. “Everywhere you look, people are hurting, and it's across the board – electricians, carpenters, health care workers, you name it.” The Associated Press and staff writers Franco Ordonez, Joe DePriest and Dan Huntley contributed.