For many Massachusetts workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, the stress of being laid off has been magnified by the Sisyphean effort to navigate a balky unemployment system that has been hammered by more than 2.7 million new claims filed since mid-March of last year.
Some unemployed workers have gone months without benefits, due in part to a large number of fraudulent claims, many filed by foreign criminal organizations. This has created huge delays as officials work to verify the identities of filers. Between April and January, the Department of Unemployment Assistance issued $687 million in payments that were either confirmed or potentially fraudulent and recovered $252 million, according to the latest data, released last week. Meanwhile, the state says it has prevented $19.2 billion worth of fraudulent payments from being disbursed.
The situation got worse in late December, after unemployment benefits lapsed the day before then-President Trump signed a bill extending them. The bill included new programs and employment verifications that states had to implement immediately, often using antiquated systems. These additional hurdles have added to the raft of legitimate claims being denied or delayed or cut off, with little notice or help from the DUA. Some people are even erroneously being told they have to pay back what they have already received.
It doesn’t appear the crisis will end any time soon. By the end of November, the state had recovered less than half of the jobs lost since April, and as of early February, more than 605,000 people had continuing unemployment claims in Massachusetts. If unemployment benefits are extended again when they expire in mid-March, claimants still will be dealing with a difficult, debilitated system — referred to as a “dinosaur” in a January report by the state House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight — for months to come.
“They weren’t prepared to address unemployment in regular times,” said Rory MacAneney, an employment attorney at Community Legal Aid in Worcester, which has opened more than 500 unemployment cases since March 17 of last year. “When the system became strained, it was straining an already ineffective and inefficient system.”
As with the state’s much-maligned vaccine website, people trying to collect unemployment are up in arms about the system’s many failings.
One furloughed technology worker’s payments stopped abruptly for no known reason when he was officially laid off at the end of November. He was out more than $10,000 by the time he got his state senator’s office involved. A roofing company payroll employee drained her 401(k) and incurred significant credit card debt after her payments suddenly ended and she was asked to repay more than $6,000 after questions were raised about her eligibility; following a hearing almost four months later, her benefits were reinstated.
Marie Justice-Hughes, a 62-year-old pediatric home-care nurse, has been trying to get back to work full time since spending eight days in the hospital with COVID last spring. But her symptoms have persisted, leaving her short of breath, exhausted, and suffering from PTSD. She had been relying on unemployment to support herself and her disabled husband since May, but at the end of December, her payments stopped. Due to the lapse of pandemic benefits, her employer had to send in paperwork in early January to renew her claim, but the agency told her there isn’t enough staff to deal with her case.
“They make you feel like you’re begging them to do what they’re supposed to do,” Justice-Hughes said. In the meantime, her hospital bills are still unpaid and the money she saved to buy a car is gone — the last one was repossessed — making it difficult to get to her part-time job in southern Massachusetts.
With nearly one of every eight workers nationwide currently collecting benefits, state unemployment systems have been overwhelmed around the country. But problems have been particularly acute in Massachusetts, which a recent report by the Century Foundation think tank found was one of 13 states that didn’t resume providing federal pandemic aid for at least a month after lapsed benefits were extended.
It’s unclear how many of the valid claims are not being paid, but according to state data, only about a third of first-time payments were made within 21 days in November, and the average duration of initial appeals was 88 days, more than quadruple the time in April.
Often, problems start the moment people attempt to file a claim. The online system will deny a claim if an image of a document is blurry, without saying why, and won’t let claimants enter “zero” for the number of hours worked the previous week. Those who try getting through to the call center, which handles about 16,000 calls a day, might wait on hold for hours, and then get hung up on; if they do reach an actual employee, there’s a good chance that person can’t help. A musician whose claim was suspended out of the blue got a message at 4:59 p.m. one day from the DUA worker who had been helping him via text: “Time to go,” it said. “Shift over. Try again tomorrow.”
Throw in fraud and software glitches and new requirements, and a fresh batch of problems seems to crop up every week.
The sudden halting of weekly benefits and demands for repayment, without prior notification of a problem or a meaningful way to rectify it, is at the heart of a lawsuit filed against the DUA late last year by Community Legal Aid. The lawsuit claims this practice denies workers benefits without due process, in violation of federal and state law and the DUA’s own regulations. And these holds can’t be appealed, Community Legal Aid said, trapping workers in limbo as their debt mounts.
“They can correct a problem with accuracy later,” Leigh Woodruff, litigation director at Community Legal Aid, said of the state. “They cannot correct a problem with promptness later because after months and months without benefits, those families will already be financially devastated in ways that will potentially harm them for the rest of their lives.”
In a memo submitted in opposition to the lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court, the DUA wrote that it was undergoing “an unprecedented period of strain,” noting that, in August, the caseload was 600 percent higher than the year before.
The state’s unemployment system, built by Deloitte, has been under fire since it launched in 2013 riddled with technical issues. (Other state systems built by Deloitte have also been brought to their knees during the pandemic.) Massachusetts is poised to address the issue, with $165 million approved in August to overhaul the system. But that does little to help people struggling now.
The widespread technical meltdowns around the country led US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, to propose spending $500 million to standardize state unemployment systems. The Department of Labor recently announced $100 million in grants to combat unemployment fraud, and the first round of $49 million was awarded last month to the first 28 states to apply — though Massachusetts was not among them.
Yet Massachusetts was one of the states hit the hardest by fraud due to its high benefit payouts, said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Massachusetts also hasn’t taken actions that other states have to address its “lemon” of a system, he said, such as bringing in private consultants to address the problems. “It is pretty shameful that they can’t get it fixed all these years later,” he said.
The Department of Unemployment Assistance said that identity verification measures to combat fraud may delay payments, but it is finalizing an agreement with a vendor to speed up the process. The department also scaled up from 50 employees to more than 2,000 at one point. There are currently 900.
State legislators often don’t get calls from their unemployed constituents until they’re desperate. One single mother who reached out to state Senator Patricia Jehlen’s office had been waiting more than 20 weeks for benefits, and Jehlen’s staff helped secure them within a week and a half. “It seems wasteful to have hundreds of people answering the phones, unable to help and sometimes giving incorrect information, so that people have to turn to legislative staff who then call DUA back,” Jehlen wrote in an e-mail.
Marie, an adjunct professor and master teacher at a Boston-area university, has been calling her state representative, the governor’s office, and the DUA for nine months. Marie, 59, who asked to be identified by her middle name, was laid off at the end of June, and soon realized someone had used her Social Security number to open a fraudulent claim. But despite her persistence, she hasn’t received a dime.
Her 401(k) and savings are long gone and every credit card is maxed out. With only 86 cents in her bank account, she and her 23-year-old daughter ate deli meat and gravy for Christmas dinner. She said she used gas from the lawn mower to drive to a doctor’s appointment and relies on loans from her brother to buy propane and make car payments. Her mortgage and electric bills are long overdue, and she’s managed to persuade Verizon not to turn off her Wi-Fi.
“They all tell me to be patient,” Marie said of the DUA workers. “I ask them to live without income for nine months and tell me how patient they would be.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.