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‘No One Will Help, No One Will Listen’: Workers Impacted By COVID-19 Outbreak Describe Struggle For Unemployment Benefits

Since the coronavirus pandemic triggered lockdowns across the United States two months ago, more than 36 million Americans filed unemployment claims.

The surge of claims has created major backlogs of unemployment claims that plague several states, large and small. This dysfunction is a result of outdated infrastructure, underfunding, and years of right-wing policies.

In fact, most workers, who find themselves unemployed in the U.S., will likely never obtain benefits because systems in many states are set up to limit support to the least amount of people possible.

Chelsea Vann, a Broadway actor in New York City, filed for unemployment on March 27 after her employer closed business.

The New York state unemployment website prompted Vann to call the claims center to complete her claim, but she was unable to get a hold of a representative for weeks. A month later, she was able to obtain certification for weekly benefits, but she has yet to receive any payout or direct deposit from the system. 

“I’m scared something was never processed, but I can’t get a hold of a human to explain my situation and ask questions,” Vann shared. “I’m close to running out of savings, and soon I don’t know how I’ll pay bills, or buy groceries to eat. It’s a nightmare.”

Thousands of workers in several states are still awaiting payout of unemployment benefits around the U.S.

In New York, over 400,000 workers who claimed unemployment have not received money. And, in Florida, around 700,000 workers have received payments of unemployed benefits, while over 700,000 more workers are awaiting verification of their claims or to be paid.

State unemployment systems were in disarray prior to the pandemic. Critics of the Florida unemployment system argue it was designed to deter people from using it because it has one of the lowest payouts in the U.S. at $275 per week.

Florida also has a difficult application and unreliable website that makes it impossible for thousands to successfully file claims. Before the pandemic, only 7.6 percent of unemployed people in Florida received benefits, compared to 65.9 percent in Massachusetts. 

Many states in the U.S. rely on outdated infrastructure that cannot handle the influx of unemployment claims. At least 12 states, including Wisconsin, still use COBOL, an outdated coding language, to back up their unemployment benefits system. 

Wisconsin’s unemployment system was weakened by Republican Scott Walker when he was governor. Walker imposed several obstacles for people to obtain unemployment benefits during his administration, including a mandatory wait period, expanded criteria for denying benefits, and additional actions claimants must complete to maintain benefits. 

Dan A. Black, a professor at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, said unemployment numbers do not capture the full economic picture during the pandemic. 

“Many workers do not qualify for unemployment insurance. This differs from state to state here in the U.S., but workers can be part-time at several different employers and not qualify at any one employer. They could have just started work at a new firm and not had sufficient earnings to qualify yet. And you cannot quit or be fired for cause,” Black contended. 

Black cited contractors, self-employed workers, new entrants to the job market, and older workers discouraged from the job market as examples of different individuals that may not qualify for unemployment benefits. 

A survey conducted by the Economic Policy Institute found from March 22 to April 18 between 7.8 million to 12.2 million Americans could not apply for unemployment benefits because they could not get through the system to do so or were discouraged by difficulties 

“The pandemic has made clear to everyone what low-wage workers have known for years—the social safety net in the United States has gaping holes that cause suffering for hard-working people and their families and communities,” said Catherine Fisk, a professor at UC Berkeley Law School who focuses on labor and employment law.

Fisk added, “State agencies that administer the system have struggled to deal with the more than 36 million new claims for benefits. Employer errors in record keeping result in workers being denied coverage even when they are eligible. And undocumented workers are ineligible in most states.” 

A public school bus driver in Prince County, Maryland, Tiffon Moss, started working her job shortly before the pandemic and hasn’t received any response to her unemployment application. 

“I was homeless before the pandemic. I’m still struggling to make enough to find stable housing,” Moss shared. “I’m staying with someone, but not having a steady income is keeping me from getting my own place.” 

Shelly Suit, a convenience store cashier in Martinsburg, West Virginia, filed for unemployment benefits and was approved on March 29 but received no benefits.

Three weeks later, a letter in the mail informed her that she needed a meeting with a claims specialist to verify her claim, but that meeting has yet to be scheduled. When she was able to get in touch with a representative on the phone, she was told there was nothing that could be done until a meeting is scheduled. 

“I have been putting everything on credit cards with the assumption that by the time I got the bills I would have the benefit payments to pay,” said Suit. “I had to put my mortgage on deferral. I don’t know how I am going to pay it when it comes due.”

Several workers in essential jobs are unable to work because of underlying health issues or are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they have not been laid off. 

Kelly Ringston, a Whole Foods employee for six years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, received a medically mandated quarantine from her primary care doctor on March 16, as her low heart function makes her extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

Ringston spoke with her supervisors and was advised to apply for short-term disability benefits for the duration of her quarantine as she awaited surgery to upgrade her pacemaker. It took several weeks for a response, but her short-term disability benefits were denied by the Whole Foods Market Leave Service Center under Whole Foods’ “short-term disability plan.”

Even with health insurance, Ringston still has no income and mounting medical bills. Because her job is essential and she remains employed, Ringston cannot obtain unemployment benefits.

“When I spoke with the ‘Team Member Services Generalist’ for my store, she did not have an answer as to why my short-term disability claim had been denied. She did not seem to be aware of the Whole Foods Market policy [for] coronavirus short-term disability claims,” said Ringston, who was advised to apply for a $500 grant from the team member emergency fund, withdraw from her 401(k), and contact a community resource directory, Impact 2-1-1

Her daughter, Emily Spine, started a GoFundMe to help cover lost income during quarantine and medical bills she’s facing due to her heart issues.

“She’s highly at risk, not only suffering from congestive heart failure, but she also has other immune system-related disorders, and she’s over the age of 60 so she really fell into that at-risk category,” said Spine. “It’s been really hard for my mom. She’s single, lives alone. I’m in New York and an only child so I’m the only available one to help her, and I’m in between jobs.”

A Whole Foods spokesperson said in an email, “Whole Foods Market does not determine what qualifies or does not qualify for short term disability benefits, nor do we set the parameters for the short-term disability benefits payout. That criteria is set by the insurer or the state-run program.”

Other workers have received denials to their unemployment claims because they didn’t work long enough, make enough money, or records are missing from their state labor agencies.

Bryan Rafferty of Boston, Massachusetts received a denial letter to his unemployment claim, stating he didn’t make enough to receive any benefits. He started working for a real estate management company in September 2019 and relied on work for Uber prior to that to make ends meet. But Rafferty’s Uber wages, or pay from the first three months of 2020 before he was furloughed on March 23, weren’t on record at the Massachusetts Department of Labor. 

In the denial summary, it says the fourth quarter of 2019 alone wouldn’t qualify me for unemployment, for which I made about $10,000. They included none of my 2020 first-quarter earnings in the calculation, despite again being laid off in the last week of the first quarter,” according to Rafferty. “I’ve run out of money.” 

Tori Atwell of Harwood, Maryland, was unemployed and received benefits prior to the pandemic. But those benefits stopped after Atwell started a restaurant job in March, right before the pandemic shut down restaurants. 

“We had barely even finished my employee paperwork when I was laid off. I haven’t worked since,” said Atwell.

Atwell tries emailing and calling the unemployment office on a daily basis, but when she gets through, she is told they cannot talk with her until she receives a notice for a scheduled phone call in the mail.

“I haven’t had any income since my unemployment benefits stopped,” Atwell shared. “I still try calling even though no one will give me any answers. But frankly what other options do I have? No one will help, and no one will listen.” 

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1