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ELKHART -- Gerardo Alvarado never had to use a computer to collect a paycheck, but to file for unemployment benefits, he has to battle the electronic device every week.
Sunday afternoon was another ordeal. Standing over a terminal at the Pierre Moran branch of the Elkhart Public Library, Alvarado first needed help logging onto his account. Then when the text exceeded the size of the screen, he began to panic, saying he could not answer the questions because he could see neither all the words nor the boxes to check yes or no.
WorkOne staff member Sasha Garcia calmly stepped over and showed him how to use the mouse to scroll across the screen.
Many laid-off workers in Elkhart County share Alvarado's struggle with computers. Not knowing their way around a keyboard and a mouse is more than frustrating for these residents. Since the Indiana Department of Workforce Development's unemployment filing system is electronic, any trouble or error can mean not getting the money needed to buy groceries or pay rent.
Complicating the situation is the first day that workers can file for benefits -- Sunday. With the WorkOne Center on Waterfall Drive closed, this sends the filers to local libraries so they can access the computers.
The Pierre Moran branch has recorded heavy traffic on Sundays ever since July 2008 and in recent weeks has noted an increase in the number of unemployed visiting to file for benefits, according to Connie Jo Ozinga, director of the Elkhart Public Library. To help alleviate the "mob scene," as Ozinga characterized it, and enable the downsized workers to quickly file, the branch on Benham Avenue has been opening an hour earlier and all the computers in the building are switched over to the DWD system.
This improved the situation until the WorkOne Center regional operator announced plans to stop staffing the Pierre Moran and Dunlap branches on Sundays and the main branch downtown on Mondays. Already overwhelmed with workers who have little computer skills and need lots of help, the decision shocked, then angered, the library.
"We're trying really hard to provide the best library service that we can," Ozinga said. "These people are part of our clientele. We're doing our best but feel like we're failing because we have so little space and computers."
STAYING AT PIERRE MORAN
A call to the regional operator, Partners for Workforce Solutions in Fort Wayne, was shuffled to Marc Lotter, spokesman for the DWD, who downplayed the controversy. He said the agency was reviewing its allocation of resources and shifting those resources to where the demand was greatest.
While Lotter pointed out that filing for unemployment benefits can be done at any time of day, any day of the week, from any computer that has Internet access, he also noted the state is always pushing laid-off workers to go to the WorkOne offices to get assistance with resume writing, job interviewing and basic computer training.
"WorkOne Centers are not unemployment offices," Lotter said. "They are employment offices."
After receiving an e-mail from the library, State Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Elkhart, said she immediately contacted the deputy commissioner of the DWD. Elkhart County remains a "hot spot" of high unemployment in Indiana, she said, and libraries are serving an integral role in providing a place for residents to file.
At some point, when the jobless rate is much lower, Walorski said, she could understand "trying to railroad people" into the WorkOne offices but right now the resources need to be available where the laid-off workers are.
The Elkhart Public Library and the DWD have subsequently negotiated to keep the WorkOne employee at Pierre Moran on Sundays but to pull the employees from Dunlap and the downtown branches. Ozinga is happy with the agreement.
"They did something good," she said. "I think they have a good understanding with what's happening here in northern Indiana."
Although the Pierre Moran branch is currently opening at noon, laid-off workers still line up outside well before the doors are unlocked. The man at the front of the line on Sept. 27 said he had arrived at 10:30 a.m.
All who were standing there Sunday morning unanimously approved of both being allowed into the library an hour early and having the WorkOne staff member available to help. Robert Powell, who lost his job in November, praised Garcia, the WorkOne employee who has been at the branch every Sunday. Because she is able to answer questions and help them with the computers, Powell said, the filers don't get as upset and more serious trouble does not start.
Most of the problems that arise with the computers are very basic, Garcia said. She patiently shows how to use the mouse or presses the key to unlock the capital letter setting but she believes the workers could be better served by going to the WorkOne office. There they could take a free workshop and learn simple computer skills so they would no longer need to get assistance to file, she said.
However whenever she suggests enrolling in a class, she said the unemployed workers often brush her aside and tell her they don't have time for that right now.
"I tell them, unemployment (benefits are) not going to last forever," she said. "They should try to get help."
Basic computer classes are offered at no charge to people who are enrolled in WorkOne programs. To attend a class, an individual must visit a WorkOne office, located at 430 Waterfall Dr., Elkhart, and enroll. Information covered in classes includes introduction to computers, the Internet and resume preparation.
Non-credit courses are offered through the Elkhart Community Schools Continuing Education program. For more information, including how to register, call 262-5678 or visit http://www.elkhart.k12.in.us/admin/edit_content.php?id=14#Register
Intro to Computers and Windows XP: For people who need to gain the skills needed to operate a computer. Beneficial for anyone looking for a job or simply trying to become computer literate.
Prerequisites: Keyboard experience
Time/Dates: 6 to 8 p.m., Mondays and Wednesdays, Oct. 5-28
Cost: $60 for 16 hours
Location: Central High School, Room B209
Computer for the Young at Heart Part I: For those ages 55 and above who have bought a computer and are now wondering why. A short course in learning the keyboard, Microsoft Word basics and Internet.
Time/Dates: 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesdays, Oct. 14-Nov. 18
Cost: $50 for 12 hours
Location: Career Center, Room B150
Computer for the Young at Heart Part II: Participants will be able to pick up where they left off and learn even more.
Time/Dates: 6 to 8 p.m., Mondays, Oct. 19-Nov. 16
Cost: $40 for 10 hours
Location: Career Center, Room B150
Microsoft Word 2003: Participants will learn skills for the job market, including mail merge and tables. They will receive instruction about automated features and clip art.
Prerequisites: Introduction to Computers and Windows XP and computer keyboarding or similar background.
Time/Dates: 6 to 8 p.m., Mondays and Wednesdays, Nov. 9-Dec. 7 (no class Nov. 25)
Cost: $90 for 16 hours
Location: Central High School, Room B209
Microsoft Excel 2007: Participants will create, design and print worksheets, format text and numbers, use functions, create charts and use databases.
Prerequisites: Microsoft Office or Introduction to Computers and Windows EX or similar background.
Time/Dates: 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, Nov. 10-Dec. 8 (no class Nov. 26)
Cost: $100 for 16 hours
Location: Career Center, Room D235