Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

The Struggle to Get Unemployment Insurance

When the pandemic decimated ad revenue at newspapers around the country, I was one of dozens of employees at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put on a two-week furlough. Shortly after, I joined the millions of people currently trying to access unemployment benefits.

I got worried when the phrase “issue on file” showed up on my online application. It was too early in the waiting game for me to feel anxious about whether I would see any money, but this was my first time navigating this state bureaucracy.

I tried calling one of the state unemployment offices three times. Once, I stayed on hold for two hours -- only for the call to mysteriously disconnect. Another time, I left a voicemail, but never heard back. Yet another time, I heard a recording that said the hold queue was full and to try back the next day.

More than 44 million people across the country have applied for state jobless benefits since mid-March. Several Facebook support groups have formed for those trying to get benefits. At a colleague’s suggestion, I joined such a group.

The one I picked already had nearly 1,200 members. Reading the posts felt like standing in a virtual line and listening to the horror stories of the people next to you.

I talked to Andrea Michel, 41, of Steelville, Missouri, who has been dealing with the system since March, when she was laid off from her job as a reservations agent for Hilton hotels. She tried to log into the state’s benefits application system, but her sign-in didn’t work. It took two weeks to reach someone to fix that hurdle. Then her claim was rejected, perhaps because she had switched jobs in February.

Every day, she would call and wait on hold to talk to someone. She calculated the time spent on these calls: In one week, she spent 19 hours on hold.

“There were days when I sat on the phone for six hours,” she said. She finally got approved and received payment for one week. The next week, the system said her claim had expired.

Back to the phones.

She needed to file additional paperwork. One rep told her it was a new quarter, so she needed to reapply. She asked about all the weeks of back pay she was owed, by then more than $4,800. One person told her she was out of luck; another said not to worry, she would receive it. One day, the system showed that her claim was being processed; another day, it said it was rejected.

Her family’s bills are piling up. Their landlord let them pay rent late since they had never been late before, she said. Her husband drives 91 miles each way to work at a factory in St. Louis, and the tires on his truck are bald. His overtime was cut when the pandemic hit.

“We’re depending on that money to get new tires because if those go, he can’t get to work,” she said. They have never been in such a financial hole before. In fact, they had some money saved before she lost her job, but those savings were used to pay for her 19-year-old son’s car and insurance once he got laid off.

“This week we weren’t able to buy any groceries at all,” she said. They had stocked up before the quarantine, so they aren’t out of food yet, but it’s running low.

She said the struggle to try to get benefits has her feeling anxious, stressed and helpless: “It’s heart-wrenching, because you don’t know if you will be able to pay your bills.”

She is battling the fear of the payments not coming at all: “Am I going to be able to recover? Will it wreck my credit? Will I have to go without food for a week because I had to pay my electric bill instead?”

Michel wrote her congressman, Jason Smith, asking for help. His office replied, saying they would forward her message to their liaison in the state department of labor.

“However, they are getting several hundred referrals just from state and federal legislators, so it’s taking a couple weeks before they reach out,” the email said. Heaven help you if you happened to change jobs shortly before getting laid off, or had an employer contest your claim.

Delores Rose, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said benefits can be paid within 22 days after establishing a new claim or renewing an established claim, unless an issue is being investigated. She said an investigation can take, on average, another four to six weeks to be completed -- and that’s during “normal times.”

These aren’t normal times.

Meanwhile, the extra federal aid for pandemic assistance runs out at the end of July, and the Trump administration opposes extending it.

I eventually got the payment for the two weeks I filed for. Michel’s claim and back pay got approved a week after mine.

The first thing she did was pay the two months of rent they owe, and buy new tires for the truck.