Your Unemployment Call Could be Answered by the National Guard

By: - April 16, 2020 12:00 am

A state worker hands out applications at a Hialeah, Florida, drive-up center. The state unemployment system was frozen by millions of phone calls and online visits. Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press

This story was updated April 16 to include a map based on newly released data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

As stay-at-home orders spread to once-resistant states in the South, unemployment numbers are surging and state systems to handle the jobless claims are overwhelmed, keeping desperately needed checks out of the hands of sidelined workers.

In Florida, state Sen. Annette Taddeo said, “ a week may not be a lot, but for the people who need it, it means food on the table, medicine, paying the rent.” Hundreds of her jobless constituents in the Miami suburbs lined up for six hours last week at a Kendall megachurch for emergency food packages.

Many have been waiting a month or longer for checks they need now.

“[Tuesday] was the first day I started hearing that some of my constituents got checks after starting to apply in the middle of March and it’s not all of them,” said another Miami-area Democratic state senator, Jose Javier Rodriguez.

There’s plenty of blame to go around as an unprecedented tide of claims in the past month hit outdated systems from coast to coast and states try everything from pleading for volunteer computer programmers to calling out the National Guard to answer phones.

Taddeo was one of 17 Democratic state senators protesting in a letter the slow rate of processing unemployment claims in Florida, asking for retroactive benefits for those who can’t get through and an end to the requirement to check in every two weeks to maintain benefits.

The protest was taken up by some of the 43,000 Disney World employees furloughed April 12, who used everything from sidewalk chalk to window signs in their homes to express frustration at being unable to file claims.

States that shut down businesses earlier have had the same problems. Illinois Republicans called on Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker this week to reassign staff and outsource more claims processing, saying in a statement their constituents are “desperate and distraught,” unable to log on to the state’s website and get through phone lines.

Florida, like other states, has transferred staff, hired outsourced call centers and added dozens of internet servers to little avail.

Texas waited until March 31 to issue a statewide stay-at-home order and is buried under new claims. Some 450 transfers from other agencies and 100 new hires are answering calls that come in at a rate of up to 3 million a day. An artificial intelligence bot already has answered a half-million questions.

“We understand our internet system and our phone lines are overwhelmed,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission. The state was searching for a vendor to improve its systems this year when the crisis hit.

Getting a handle on processing the claims has taken weeks, even in states such as Illinois and Connecticut with some of the first stay-at-home orders.

Connecticut has a 40-year-old system for claims that’s backed up for six weeks, and workers have processed only 174,000 of 350,000 claims since the crisis struck, said Nancy Steffens, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor.

Connecticut hopes to shorten wait times to one week with new software to replace some of the mainframe-era computer system and automate some of the claims that now have to be reviewed by hand, Steffens said.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.