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Automated claim system a pressing task for jobless


"Press 1 if you got a job last week . . ."

The computerized telephone machines that allow Marylanders to pay their bills and check their train schedules are coming to the state's unemployment insurance system.

Officials from the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development (DEED) announced yesterday that they are developing an automated computer system that will allow jobless Marylanders to file for unemployment insurance checks by making a telephone call.

The jobless would feed information about themselves and their status directly into a state computer by punching telephone buttons in response to automated questions.

The computer would then print out unemployment checks.

The telephone computer system, which is scheduled to be in operation early next year, would replace the current system's requirement that recipients of unemployment benefits fill out and mail in postcards stating they looked for work but hadn't found a job.

The unemployed would still have to go to a state office the first time they filed for unemployment insurance, any time there is a dispute and for bimonthly visits.

Eventually, DEED associate secretary Charles Middlebrooks III said, as many as two-thirds of the state's unemployed could be filing their biweekly updates by telephone.

Mr. Middlebrooks estimated that the $1.4 million system, which is being paid for by a federal grant, will allow the department to cut four contract workers from the claims processing department, which has 13 employees, and save about $80,000 a year.

And, he said, the system would be more accurate than the postcards.

To replace signatures, telephone filers would be given a special identification number to punch in, and would listen to a computerized voice verifying their information before they hang up.

"If they check the wrong block [on a card] it creates a problem," he said. But the telephone system would ask: " 'Is this the right Social Security number?' "

Adjusting to the new system will be difficult for those not used to responding to computers and impossible for people with the old rotary phones, said Ronald Adler, president of the Laurdan Associates Inc., a Potomac-based unemployment insurance consulting company.

But automated systems are the wave of the future, he said.

Colorado is already taking first-time and continuing unemployment claims over the telephone, and North Carolina has a system similar to what Maryland will use.

But some users of the current system say the biweekly postcards were easy to file. Instead, they worry about the state office's ability to handle telephone systems.

Howard Colliflower, a Baltimore insurance adjuster who was laid off from Tongue, Brooks & Co. last year, said the mail-in system seemed to work pretty well. His checks were a couple of days late sometimes, but they never got lost.

His experience telephoning his local unemployment office makes him worried about the new system.

"It would keep ringing and ringing," he said.

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