State's jobless get busy signal after fire disrupts phone lines

COLUMBIA -- A telephone pole fire outside the S.C. Employment Security Commission temporarily disrupted its automated jobless claim system Sunday and threatened to delay, by at least a day, weekly payments to thousands of South Carolinians filing unemployment claims.

The five-hour electrical disruption was resolved by 3:30 p.m. Sunday, but "the system is going to be tight for the next few days," said Stephen Marshall, deputy director for employment and training. Normally, the first run of checks are cut by 6 p.m. Sunday and taken to the post office early Monday, but that first run was expected to be pushed back to late Sunday night.

The fire broke out around 6 a.m. on a Hampton Street telephone pole, adjacent to the agency, which is located at 1550 Gadsden St.

The blaze, which is under investigation by the Columbia Fire Department, was quickly extinguished but burned electrical lines going into the agency, spokesman Clark Newsom said.

That, in turn, disrupted the agency's automated Interactive Voice Response system, or Telclaim system, which records the job status of those seeking unemployment benefits.

A battery-powered generator kept electricity on from 6 to 10 a.m., which gave officials time to take down the agency's mainframe computer and save incoming data.

ESC employees worked feverishly to get the mainframe computer back online, restore the automated phone service and make sure that the first run of weekly unemployment checks would be cut Sunday evening, said James "Mack" Horton, deputy director for administration and support.

He speculated that an errant "varmint," possibly a squirrel, triggered the pole fire.

Officials fear a domino effect of back-ups caused by the temporary telephone shutdown. Last week, the agency mailed notices to 27,000 people who are eligible for extended jobless benefits, asking them to begin calling on Tuesday. Congress passed the first extension of jobless claims in July and approved a second extension in November of 20 weeks of extra benefits.