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‘I can’t pay my rent. I have no food.’ Unemployed workers are on edge awaiting slow-moving jobless benefits

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Unemployed workers in Massachusetts who haven’t received benefits since the end of December are pleading with the state to tell them where their money is — and worrying about how they’re going to cover February’s rent.

Some who have been waiting more than a month for a new round of unemployment benefits to kick in said that state employees are telling them the system is being updated; others have heard that a raft of fraudulent claims is causing delays.

Employees answering the phones either don’t seem to know what’s going on or can’t assure callers the money will be there soon, unemployed residents say — and that’s only when calls get through at all. This is on top of software glitches that crop up occasionally, including one that temporarily reduced people’s accounts to zero and set off a new round of panic.

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On Facebook groups, people swap tips about how to game the unemployment system. One trick: When calling the state Department of Unemployment Assistance, pressing “6″ to change a password will get a live person on the phone — though that person probably won’t be able to help with an unpaid claim.

The DUA has been plagued by problems since the early days of the pandemic, when a deluge of claims and an outdated computer system led to long waits for benefits. In the fall, fraudulent claims generated by autonomous software programs also contributed to significant delays as more stringent identification protocols were put in place to weed out fraud.

Kristen Manganaro, 33, was laid off from Banners Kitchen & Tap near TD Garden in March and didn’t have any problem receiving unemployment benefits until the end of December, as one set of jobless benefits expired and Congress approved a last-minute extension set to last through the middle of March 2021. But Manganaro hasn’t received any money since, despite repeated reassurances that it’s on the way.

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“All they can say is: ‘Hang tight, it’s coming,’ " she said, driving her to wake up at 6 a.m. every day to check her account and obsessively refresh it throughout the day.

Finally, on Sunday, the day before the rent was due, Manganaro told her landlord she couldn’t pay the $750 she owed him.

“I have $9 in my bank account,” she said. “I’m now facing eviction because of the DUA’s incompetence.”

(The state’s eviction moratorium ended in October, but a federal rule blocking most evictions has been extended through the end of March).

On Monday, Governor Charlie Baker said there were a number of issues with the extended benefits, including the fact the government had to design and implement new programs to keep the money flowing. There are also new rules in place based on previous fraud and identification problems, he said, and in many cases people have to submit more information and reapply for the extra benefits. Baker said he wasn’t aware of any software glitches.

The DUA did not respond to questions on Monday about delayed payments or how many people were affected. Before benefits were cut off at the end of December, more than half a million people were getting federal unemployment assistance.

The DUA’s lack of transparency is a big part of the problem, said Jessica Proulx, who helps run a Facebook group for unemployed workers. The agency’s employees will say “there’s a glitch,” or that payments are pending — and occasionally they’ll even admit they don’t know what the problem is, she said. “In the meantime, you’re losing your car, you’re losing your car insurance, you don’t have money to feed your kids.”

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Proulx said she has been referring people to food banks and to public school systems that give free food to students.

Amanda Jennings, 33, got benefits in early January, but nothing since, despite assurances from a helpful state employee who told her the problem would be fixed by Jan. 20.

“Everyone gets a different story when they call,” said Jennings, who worked in the service department at Herb Chambers Toyota of Auburnuntil August. “I can’t pay my rent. I have no food. I know this isn’t just me, it’s thousands of people. . . . I cried a lot yesterday.”

Khristian Fanning, 47, estimates she is owed about $7,000 in benefits since being cut off at the end of last year. Fanning, a Plymouth resident who managed medical spas that provide laser hair removal and other treatments, said she has been getting conflicting information from the DUA. One employee told her she wasn’t eligible; another found a mistake and said she would restore her benefits. A third said there was no record of the previous conversation.

In the meantime, Fanning is applying for 20 to 30 jobs a day and trying to help support her two daughters, ages 19 and 22, who live with her. Fanning has applied for food stamps and rental assistance and is hoping for understanding from her landlord. She got fuel assistance, which is already gone, and is thankful that utility companies can’t shut off gas or electricity in the winter.

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“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “All [DUA] is saying is wait. Just wait. Just wait.”

Lesley Healy, a tax preparer in Keene, N.H., who works evenings for H&R Block, because she has to be home with her children during the day, collects unemployment aid from a former job at a vocational high school in Upton. She said it’s disrespectful that people calling the unemployment office often get a recording saying it’s too busy to answer.

“I’m not a drain on society,” she wrote in an e-mail, “but am being made to feel that way.”

Matt Stout and Larry Edelman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.