For more than a week, Anthony Tiro, a laid-off union pipe fitter, has repeatedly opened his laptop and typed out a desperate plea for a call-back from the state agency that controls unemployment benefits.
But no call has come.
And without a call-back, Tiro is blocked from receiving a crucial benefit that he’s certainly entitled to and which, during previous layoffs, paid him more than $700 a week.
“It’s extremely frustrating for me, and I’m sure for others in the same position,” said Tiro, 49, of Quincy. “We need income to pay our bills.”
Unemployment insurance is paid by employers on behalf of their workers with contributions drawn from every paycheck. It doles out about half of a worker’s normal wages when he or she files for unemployment, up to $823 weekly for a maximum of 26 weeks. (The stimulus bill would add hundreds of dollars in weekly benefits to claimants, and extend the period of coverage by about three months.)
The problem Tiro faces is rooted in the online computer system used by the state Department of Unemployment Assistance, a low-profile agency during periods of low unemployment (remember those?) now thrust to the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis amid unprecedented job losses.
The state reported Thursday that since the crisis hit, claims have skyrocketed to nearly 148,000 from about 7,500 in about a week. That’s 20 times more claims in a very short period.
And that number will surely grow for lots of reasons, including when the logjam blocking people like Tiro from filing is finally cleared.
Tiro can’t apply for benefits because the computer system won’t accept his password. And, try as he may, the system won’t allow him to reset it. To do that, Tiro needs to be on the phone with an employee of the unemployment agency.
Tiro learned of his need for personal, hands-on intervention by a state employee while listening to one of the agency’s daily virtual town halls.
“It’s making me really nervous," Tiro said.
Joseph Beck, 56, of Stoughton, is in similar straits. He was laid off from his longtime job as a waiter at Anchovies Restaurant in the South End, prompting him to seek unemployment benefits for the first time.
Beck was able to create a new account and began entering the requested information, only to be abruptly stopped when an error message flashed on his computer screen. He’s been waiting for days for a call-back to clear the error and move forward with his application.
“I just don’t know what to do next,” he said.
You can’t simply call the Department of Unemployment Assistance and wait in a queue for someone to pick up. When you call, you get a voice message telling you to go online and fill out and submit a form requesting a call-back. That’s the only way in, and it’s obviously not working. (Like so many others, I’m still waiting for a response to my “request for contact.”)
I talked to people who work for nonprofits that help laid-off workers get unemployment benefits. They used words like “widespread” and “systemic” to describe the computer problems, even while saying they are impressed by how the Baker administration has responded to the crisis. Still, much more obviously needs to be done, and quickly.
Hundreds of state workers have been pulled from other assignments to return calls and handle claims — including managers and lawyers not accustomed to doing customer service. The agency’s call center was staffed by about 50 employees before the COVID-19 outbreak. Within a week or so, there will be more than 10 times that number working on calls, the state told me.
I think it’s fair to call it an epic mobilization in state government. Yet it’s still not enough.
Governor Charlie Baker at a press conference on Thursday acknowledged the enormous work ahead for the unemployment agency, calling it “one of the biggest challenges we face.”
I gave the state a detailed account of what I had found, with specific reference to Tiro’s case. In response, a spokesperson released a statement saying it “continues to prioritize efforts to address the phone system by deploying hundreds of employees to work remotely with the additional claimants.”
I also listened this week to two virtual town halls, during which there was ample discussion of password problems and how staff involvement was required to fix them.
But how bad is it? The state isn’t saying how many “requests for contact” need attention. But it does say it has made more than 10,000 calls, responding to requests in the order they were received. Well, if that’s true, then those 10,000 calls went to folks who got in line before Tiro, who made his first request on March 18. And that would mean more than a week’s worth of calls are stacked up, probably tens of thousands of them.
And call-backs don’t always solve the problem. Someone who has worked on behalf of laid‐off workers cited one example. The worker got a call-back, followed the advice, hung up, then encountered another online problem.
The computer glitches, if that’s the right word, are apparently rooted in the system built for the state by Deloitte Consulting of New York. When the system was rolled out in 2013, the problems some claimants experienced became front-page news. One glaring deficiency is that it’s in English only. Another is that it does not work well on your mobile phone.
Before the crisis hit, the Baker administration planned to overhaul the existing fragile, clunky unemployment computer system. I’m sure it’s a good idea, and ought to go forward.
But something must be done immediately, and not only for people like Tiro and Beck struck in limbo with no money coming in. For those who are not computer- or English-proficient, filing online is not an option. They need phone access.
A greatly expanded and smoothly operating call center is a necessity to provide a lifeline to struggling people. State officials need to find a way to get it done now.