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Underfunded, understaffed and under siege: Unemployment offices nationwide are struggling to do their jobs

Millions of people are out of work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Obtaining much-needed aid is proving tougher than some expected, and there are signs it could get harder.

Tyrone Keoton Jr. is handed an application form for unemployment benefits by a security guard at the WIN Job Center in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday. The job centers lobbies are closed statewide to prevent the spread of covid-19. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
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When the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino near Gulfport, Miss., shut down in early March, Jasmine Cooley raced to apply for unemployment aid.

And that’s when her headaches began.

First, it took hours to get someone on the phone. Then the state processed her information incorrectly. But her worst fears came to fruition about a week later — when she learned she had been rejected. A single mom now living with her own mother, Cooley said she didn’t qualify because of Mississippi’s strict rules, some of which the state would relax weeks later, but not before a deadly pandemic unleashed once-unfathomable hardships on local families.

“We’re extremely worried about paying bills,” Cooley said.

Roughly 10 million people have filed unemployment claims over the past two weeks, only to face a similar struggle: Out of work, and soon to be out of cash, they’ve encountered local governments that are unprepared to handle the unprecedented strain. State websites are buckling, their phone lines are jammed and the backlogs are mounting for jobless benefits, threatening to delay checks to Americans who need help most.

Complicating matters, the Department of Labor in the nation’s capital has not yet disbursed all the necessary money to the states, and it just issued guidelines for how local governments should implement its new programs over the weekend. The prior days of silence slowed down many states and sparked confusion nationwide, as jobless workers wondered how long it would take before larger checks reached their cash-starved bank accounts.

The Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The pain is especially evident in states like Mississippi, which advocates had faulted for inadequate social safety-net programs long before a public-health emergency gripped the nation. Mississippi pays the least of any state to people who are out of a job. And fewer than 1 in 10 unemployed workers receive unemployment benefits in the first place, according to a March report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found Mississippi ill-equipped to handle a recession.

Here and around the country, these and other deficiencies risk exacerbating the immense stress already facing vulnerable workers and families, some of whom say they never before have sought the government’s help — and now are struggling to get it when they need it most.

“My job is not paying me. My government is not paying me. I’ve worked since I was 18,” Cooley said. “I paid a lot of money into the state of Mississippi. What are they going to do for me?”

The Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which manages the state’s unemployment program, did not respond to a request for comment. But Jacqueline Turner, the office’s executive director, acknowledged the strain on the system in recent days.

“We have not abandoned our Mississippians,” she said during an interview broadcast on Facebook. “We know this is our responsibility.”

The coronavirus pandemic’s death toll is concentrated in certain parts of the country, but its economic havoc has proven widespread: In the week ending March 28, 6.6 million Americans sought unemployment benefits. That was up from a weekly total of just 215,000 claims in late February.

Americans hit by economic shocks as confusion, stumbles undermine Trump’s stimulus effort

Ultimately, millions of Americans are likely to receive some relief from their states and the federal government, through a mix of local programs and a new $2 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Trump last month.

But the urgent question is whether any of this aid will arrive fast enough to help families struggling to pay their bills, manage their mortgages or purchase groceries and other goods amid a pandemic — and in the process arrest an economic catastrophe not seen since the country entered a recession more than a decade ago.

“We should have all hands on deck to give the unemployment insurance system the best shot,” said Till von Wachter, a labor economist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “If people can’t get their claims in and they can’t get the money Congress allocated them, they can’t pay their rent.”

Unemployment insurance is overseen by the federal government, funded with the help of corporate payroll taxes and administered by individual states. Under the $2 trillion aid law, Congress gave these programs an across-the-board boost: Americans who qualify for jobless benefits stand to gain an additional $600 in their checks until July.

Those who don’t qualify instead may be eligible for a new pandemic relief fund, which is backed by federal dollars. But labor experts said it may prove difficult for some workers, including those who drive for gig-economy companies like Uber, to obtain the money quickly. Others out of a job because they’re taking care of a sick parent also may not qualify for some new federal funds, they said, citing federal guidance issued Sunday.

Uber drivers and other gig economy workers were promised unemployment benefits. It may be a long wait.

In the meantime, states across the country have struggled to meet the new demand, scrambling to answers calls, process claims, adapt their computer systems and hire new staff. On the front lines of an economic downturn, they’ve heard an earful from angry residents, despite the fact Washington is to blame for some of the delays in aid.

Even in the District, residents must use a website built in the early 2000s that does not work on mobile phones. Workers filed nearly 44,000 unemployment claims in the past month, compared with 27,000 in all of 2019.

Delays in overhauling D.C. unemployment site add to turmoil of coronavirus layoffs

In Maryland, some unemployment workers have continued to go into the office even after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered state employees to telework, said Jason Suggs, the president of a local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union chapter representing labor employees. They were promised double pay, he said, but stopped receiving it.

Inside, Suggs described a deluge of work that’s only exacerbated by outdated technology. Sometimes, a federal database for determining if an out-of-work applicant made money in another state simply will “crash,” he said, making it difficult to review a claim. Maryland’s own computers also rely on software that’s decades old: It’s a DOS-based system, white text on black backgrounds, a far cry from what most people use today.

Still, Suggs said Maryland had sought to do as much as it could to try to get benefits out as fast as possible, rarely as quickly as applicants would like.

“It has been extremely busy,” he said.

A spokesman for the state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal officials scramble to ensure tech glitches, bureaucracy don’t delay $1,200 coronavirus checks

Elsewhere, the economic carnage wrought by the novel coronavirus has ravaged unemployment programs that some experts previously said had been hamstrung from years of mismanagement or neglect.

In Florida, claims for unemployment benefits have surged, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) faces immense criticism for a too-slow response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a history of missteps, dating back to the days when Republican Sen. Rick Scott served as governor, has contributed to a mounting backlog, local leaders say.

Under Scott, Florida slashed unemployment benefits and put in place a system to handle claims — at a cost of $77 million — that auditors repeatedly have said suffers from deficiencies, including errors that have wrongly denied people benefits. The state’s director of unemployment, Ken Lawson, apologized Thursday for what he acknowledged is a “fiasco,” but local officials contend the immense delays should have been avoidable.

“This is designed to make it very difficult for people get service from the state, and we’re seeing that now,” said Adrian Hayes-Santos, a commissioner in the city Gainesville.

Sarah Schwirian, a spokesman for now-Sen. Scott, defended his tenure as governor, saying his reforms “turned the program into a re-employment system so people could find employment.” Florida’s unemployment office did not respond to a request for comment.

A New York City taxi driver kept working to pay bills. Now he and his family are sick

In Mississippi, the technology underpinning its unemployment system is supposed to be state of the art, offering a “more accessible claim process,” state leaders said in 2017. But local residents say the behind-the-scenes gadgetry appears to have made scant difference in a state that pays a maximum of $235 per week in unemployment, less than anywhere else in the country.

Even before the local mayor ordered residents to stay at home, shopping had slowed to a trickle at the antique marketplace in Oxford, Miss., where Stephanie Lockett sometimes sells pillows and artwork. Within days, however, her husband, who manages the store, received the bad news: He was going to have to file for unemployment.

Lockett, who manages much of the family’s finances, soon found herself facing the same struggle as millions of Americans around the country — in dire need of financial help yet stymied at every attempt to obtain it. Every time she tried to submit an application for jobless benefits on her husband’s behalf, the state unemployment website crashed. Only at midnight last Wednesday did she finally get through, learning that her husband is eligible for a $235-per-week check. It was unclear when he would actually receive the money or the hundreds of additional dollars the federal government has promised.

“When you live in Mississippi, everything is already such a hot mess,” Lockett said. “You just assume it’s them screwing things up.”

Undocumented workers among those hit first — and worst — by the coronavirus shutdown

The month of April is usually a booming time for Michelle Shad, an Uber driver who lives near the University of Mississippi. There’s spring break, visits from parents, a slew of graduation parties and a weekend-long music festival that typically puts enough in her pocket that she can “ride it out” financially during the offseason, she said.

But after the coronavirus prematurely brought Ole Miss and the nearby area to a screeching halt, Shad had no choice but to file for unemployment for the first time in her life, only to discover a slew of obstacles along the way. “Your heart stops beating,” she said.

Shad stands to benefit from a new program under the Cares Act, which allows millions of Uber drivers and other laborers in the so-called gig economy to collect unemployment for the first time. For weeks, though, she has received mixed messages from the state about when and how to apply — and she’s struggled to upload basic documents to the unemployment system.

Weeks after completing her last ride, Shad found herself packing up her apartment and preparing to move in with her daughter in a town known as the “sweet potato capital of the world.” And she caught herself wondering how different it might be outside Mississippi.

“By the time they figure this out, it’s going to be three months down the road, and it’s going to be too late for a lot people,” Shad said.

Long before the coronavirus rocked the state, advocates representing workers say Mississippi had fallen short by other means. When many states reformed their unemployment insurance rules in response to the 2008 recession — motivated in large part by the U.S. government offering additional aid for those that did — Mississippi opted against major changes, said Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

“A lot of the way in which policy is designed in the state is from a presumption [that] folks don’t want to work,” she said.

In early March, Cooley discovered those restrictions firsthand.

When she applied for unemployment, the 30-year-old Gulfport resident said state officials told her she needed to demonstrate 18 months of continuous wages to qualify. But Cooley said she had been sidelined at one point in late 2018 due to a medical procedure. Though she was out of work now because of the coronavirus, she said Mississippi told her she still wasn’t eligible — and told her to apply again in a few weeks once Congress adopted its new stimulus law.

Since then, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R), has pledged to help those affected by the pandemic, including by lifting some unemployment insurance requirements. And Congress has adopted its $2 trillion aid package. Cooley, however, said she remains unable to get help from the state because of local bureaucracy and federal delays.

“There are days when you kinda just have a little bit of a breakdown,” she said, unsure of her next steps. “You really have no options, no resources.”

Jeff Stein and Heather Long contributed to this story.

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