Was it compassion for the newly jobless — or cheap politics?
On March 20, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey tweeted her displeasure with the Baker administration’s handling of thousands of inquiries from workers who found themselves suddenly unemployed due to coronavirus-related business shutdowns: “20,000 unemployment claims were filed on Monday alone. Our hotline is flooded with calls from workers unable to speak to a live person at Dept. of Unemployment. We are doing our best to get them answers, but they need the Governor to staff up and open the Teleclaim Center now.”
20,000 unemployment claims were filed on Monday alone.— Maura Healey (@MassAGO) March 20, 2020
Our hotline is flooded with calls from workers unable to speak to a live person at Dept. of Unemployment. We are doing our best to get them answers, but they need the Governor to staff up and open the TeleClaim Center now.
Healey routinely lambastes President Trump on Twitter. But those were fighting words aimed directly at Republican Governor Charlie Baker — from a Democrat who is often mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate. In a subsequent WCVB report about frustrations experienced by people trying to file claims, Healey, followed up with more pointed criticism: “We need more people on the lines to process these claims. People are really desperate,” she said. “We’ve got to get money into people’s pockets. People aren’t going to be able to pay rent, buy groceries. I have a concern about the rate of homelessness as a result of this. We have a lot of people who don’t have savings.”
Baker administration workers, scrambling to manage a calamity, were not pleased with her remarks — and it’s easy to understand why. They’re dealing with the pressures of an unprecedented health crisis, and the tsunami of unemployment claims that goes with it.
Yet Healey raises legitimate concerns about the state’s response, at least in the first chaotic days.
Government is supposed to be there for the people at their time of greatest need. But it was hard, if not impossible, for the scared and newly jobless to connect with someone in the Baker administration who could talk to them, human to human, about their rights and plight.
A telephone helpline, originally promoted as a go-to information source, didn’t connect callers to a live person. Instead, they got a recorded message referring them to the Department of Unemployment Assistance website. The website has links for filing a claim and for filing requests for a callback. When callbacks didn’t come, the AG’s Fair Labor hotline was flooded with hundreds of calls and e-mails from workers with an unemployment issue, including some who don’t speak English and others who have accessibility issues.
Asked about the matter, Charles Pearce, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said the online unemployment system “has been able to meet the demand" and they continue to “prioritize efforts to address the phone system.” In Baker administration speak, that means the phone line is a work in progress. To that end, they are deploying “hundreds of employees to work remotely with the additional claimants.” Over the last five days, said Pearce, the department has made over 10,000 individual callbacks, responded to over 10,000 Web inquiries, and has held daily virtual town halls in both English and Spanish, attended by over 30,000 people.
Meanwhile, they are “exploring the possibility” of temporarily contracting with remote call center vendors until everyone gets a callback.
Time to stop exploring and just do it.
Pearce did not respond to a question about how many callback requests have been made. He said the number of unemployment claims filed to date will be updated on Thursday.
No one doubts the dedication of the governor or his leadership team during this crisis. Still, it feels like there has been a multiday response lag on several fronts, including ramping up for unemployment claims. But from the top down, whatever the topic, this administration doesn’t like admitting mistakes or shortcomings. And Baker isn’t used to hearing Democrats speak out about them — which is what Healey did.
Is there a political agenda? Sure. But Healey also put a spotlight on a real problem faced by real people in a real crisis.
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