Who is this? California couples getting Ala. calls

Published 7:02 pm Friday, January 2, 2009

MONTGOMERY — There used to be a time when people who called Linda Jahraus’ home in Laguna Beach, Ca., were actually wanting to speak to her and her husband.

But for the past several months, the majority of callers have been trying to reach an Alabama unemployment hot line. The call confusion has added to the frustrations of the state’s unemployed and has left at least two California households hoping for a little less ringing in the new year.

“We almost didn’t pick up the phone,” Jahraus said Friday after spotting an incoming Alabama number from The Associated Press on her caller-ID. “It’s a pain in the neck, quite frankly. The day after Christmas we had 50 or more phone calls and they started at 5 a.m.”

The Alabama Department of Industrial Relations administers unemployment benefits and set up a toll-free number for out-of-work Alabamians to use to apply for benefits and conduct other business.

The calls are supposed to be routed to call centers in Montgomery or Birmingham depending on which is least busy, but some of the calls have been going to California.

Cybil and Harvey Bernash of Irvine, Ca., have been getting the same Alabama calls as the Jahrauses and discovered their friends’ similar plight when Cybil Bernash called the hot line number to report the problem.

“What was really odd is one morning the phone rang and it was someone I knew,” Jahraus said. “It was Cybil Bernash and she said, ‘Is this the Alabama unemployment office?’ I thought she was kidding. I said, ‘Cybil no, it’s Linda!'”

Jahraus said she’s reached a family in Newport Beach, Ca., by calling the 866 number and suspects there are others who are getting the wayward Alabama calls.

She contacted the Montgomery Advertiser after getting no resolution by calling her phone carrier and state offices in Alabama. The newspaper reported on the situation in Friday’s editions and talked to the Bernashes, who said they’ve taken to unplugging the phone or turning the ringer off to cope. Calls to their home weren’t answered on Friday.

Industrial Relations Director Tom Surtees said his department has notified the Alabama Department of Finance, which manages his agency’s phone account with AT&T, and the departments are “putting all the resources we have into resolving the problem.”

“I can’t explain somebody sitting in north Alabama making a call and it ending up in somebody’s private residence in California,” he said.

AT&T Alabama spokeswoman Sue Sperry said the company would be working through the weekend to try to isolate the problem.

“This is unusual in that it’s a sporadic incident and there’s a lot of stakeholders,” she said. “Our goal is to work with the state telecommunications folks to trace this to the source of the problem whether it’s AT&T or not.”

She said the problem could result from a number of factors from the long-distance network to a glitch in the switching center.

“It could be software, it could be electronic, it could be anything,” she said.

Jahraus said the problem first started with a few calls a day about six months ago but the volume of “wrong numbers” has steadily grown as the number of unemployed Alabamians has grown.

“I think what we’re seeing now is with the increased number of calls a problem that was once minor has become more of a major issue,” Surtees said. “A year ago we had 3,000 or 4,000 new claims a week and now we’re getting 13,000 to 14,000 new claims a week.”

Alabama’s November unemployment rate of 6.1 percent was the highest in 15 years, with nearly 11,000 more workers out of work that month.

Surtees said he hopes the problem is resolved soon and that people are encouraged to apply for their benefits online, which is how about 25 percent of unemployment applications are now filed.

“Losing your job is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to an individual,” he said. “We understand that and we are working to make (the process) as easy as possible. These are difficult times for a lot of people.”