As the state anxiously waits to see whether a surge of coronavirus patients will swamp the hospital system, waves of newly unemployed workers have already swamped the state's unemployment system, leaving thousands with neither paychecks nor answers.
Massachusetts Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rosalin Acosta promised listeners on a telephone town hall Monday that help would be coming for tens of thousands of unemployment applicants — she just couldn’t quite say when.
“This pandemic assistance application right now is not available in our regular site, so please do not apply there because ... you will get rejected from that,” Acosta said. “It is not the way to do it.”
The program Acosta was describing will allow gig workers, independent contractors and other employees who wouldn’t traditionally be eligible for unemployment to collect benefits after losing their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also the latest federal guidance, which the state’s unemployment office is scrambling to implement as quickly as possible.
Some applicants in Acosta’s audience were not eager to be told to wait longer, after weeks spent waiting to hear back from an overburdened system that’s cracking under the pressure of the pandemic.
Since a public emergency was declared across the state in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Unemployment Assistance increased employees at their call center from 50 to 500, made more than 50,000 calls back to individuals seeking assistance with their applications, and hosted town halls in both English and Spanish which have been attended by more than 100,000 participants. Still, many applicants are confused and frustrated at a system some are calling “archaic” and “broken,” one that was not designed for pandemic-level unemployment rates.
In mid-March, Heather Sullivan was laid off from one job, furloughed from another, and lost her third income as an independent contractor. The Quincy resident says she filed her unemployment paperwork, both online and in the mail, but was then told her application was missing materials, and was further delayed.
“But I sent everything in already,” Sullivan told WGBH News, “so I don’t really understand what the miscommunication was. I’m sure tons of people are sending stuff in, and it’s obviously not being recorded properly.”
Sullivan says she hasn’t been impressed by the ten-fold staff increase at the unemployment call center. “It's been almost three weeks now, and I haven't heard of a single person getting a call back,” she said. “It just seems like, I don't know, I feel like 500 people could make a lot of calls in one day.”
Sullivan’s only recourse was to file an appeal and re-send all her paperwork, hoping that this time everything went through. “It’s very stressful, not being able to work for so long, or to make any kind of income,” Sullivan said. “If this doesn't get figured out soon, I'm going to be f----d-.”
After he was laid off from his bartending job in March, Dorchester resident Trey Magnus says he was told he was “ineligible but not disqualified” for unemployment. “They were saying I hadn't made [enough income] to qualify for unemployment,” Magnus said, “which is ridiculous because at that time, the pandemic had been going on for three weeks.”
Magnus says the state’s unemployment website further confused him. “It’s beyond glitchy,” he said. “It feels almost like you're working on like a Windows '98, maybe a Windows 2000 version of a browser. You go to the ‘frequently asked questions’ part of the website, and sometimes that goes to an error message. I try to click on my case number, you go to that, and nothing pops up.”
After eight years working as a veterinary technician, Malden resident Ariel Wolff was furloughed “indefinitely.” When filing for unemployment, Wolff found herself delayed by confusion over the requirements. Even though the application said she didn’t need to show jobs she was actively applying to since her unemployment was caused by the coronavirus pandemic, she still received a request to submit a “work search log” showing where she had applied.
“It says as long as you stay in touch with your employer, that fulfills the work search log,” Wolff said. “But I also don't want to not submit it, and then not get the benefits that I need. It’s not clear if I don't have to do it, or if I don’t do it, they're not going to give me the money. There's no direction.”
Charles Pearce, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, says the state’s digital systems have “been able to meet the demand” of the thousands of claims — 181,032 in the last week of March alone, ten times more than the entire month of February. Yet, in the town hall, he took a moment to acknowledge the anxiety of the moment.
“The COVID-19 crisis has put a lot of people in a very uncomfortable and confusing situation,” Pearce told callers. “It's you, your friends, your family, your neighbors, people throughout the state, throughout the country ... it's an entirely different world than it was a month ago. We understand that, and we empathize with that, and that's why we're here trying to help you.”
During the town hall, a procession of callers waited on the line to express exasperation, then joy — some of them sounding close to tears — to finally resolve weeks-old issues with an overburdened unemployment machine.
Customer service manager Hal Bent resolved an issue for caller Laura from Westminster, who exclaimed, “I’m so excited to get through, thank you!” Kenneth, a caller from Pembroke, sounded shocked when Bent explained that a delayed payment would appear in a few days in his bank account. “Oh — you looked it up. That’s — that’s awesome,” he said. And after a pause, “thank God.”
Before the state took questions, Secretary Acosta noted a truism for both applicants and those running the system: nobody could have predicted this. “I know these are challenging and difficult times, and that’s why we wanted to hold this session today,” Acosta said. “The scale of increased demand on the unemployment system as a result of COVID-19 has been unprecedented.”
Information seems to trickle in, even to the state agency from the federal one, in a slow stream. In a statement, Pearce said benefits under the federal coronavirus relief bill — called the CARES Act — are not yet available in Massachusetts, and “claimants may not apply for such benefits at this time,” but updates will be posted on the state’s website “as soon as they are available.”
For some residents, it’s the lack of information that inspires the most frustration. Needham resident Wayne Berger says he’s requested “eight or nine” call-backs about misinformation on his account that renders him ineligible, but has yet to hear back. “You can’t call them, and you can’t go in person,” Berger said. “The system has been overrun, but the problem is that the interface, the system itself, is so archaic. It's not even remotely set up to be able to handle this surge of claims.”
Berger said he’s reached out to every elected official he can think of. He’s tried calling, emailing, and requesting call-backs, but he ultimately has run out of ideas about what to do next, as he slowly runs out of income. “You hear the pundits talking about how we’re going to have all these resources in place, we’re going to have these additional dollars in the CARES Act and the stimulus package,” he said, “but if the implementation of it is a [mess], who cares? You’re not getting the money. That’s the bottom line.”
Berger describes his experience as a “brave new world,” as a well-educated man in his fifties with a masters degree, facing unemployment for the first time.
For Chase Taylor, a 23 year-old recent Suffolk University graduate living with his parents in Westborough, the news of his termination from a temp job with “20 minutes notice” didn’t come as a huge shock. “It's very depressing, but I’ve had a pretty pessimistic outlook on life before any of this,” Taylor said. “I'm graduating from college with my degree, doesn't really mean anything. And I'm graduating into this very hollow economy in which I was a temp worker, already struggling to find a job.”
Taylor says he will continue to apply to jobs and hope for the best, as the state continues to work through each unemployment application on a case-by-case basis. Taylor says he hopes his pessimistic outlook will eventually be disproven.
“I don’t know what's going to come out of the other side of this,” he said,” but things are going to have to change. Given that millions of people could possibly be thrown off their health care coverage in the middle of a pandemic, something has to change.”