25 Investigates: Many out of work due to COVID-19 pandemic finding they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits

25 Investigates: Many out of work due to COVID-19 pandemic finding they're not eligible for unemployment benefits

BOSTON — The latest data from the Department of Labor paints a sobering picture of the unemployment crisis in Massachusetts. Last week alone, 70,552 laid off Bay State workers filed unemployment claims, bringing the total number of initial claims filed to 722,009 since the COVID-19 pandemic forced non-essential businesses to shut down six weeks ago.

For weeks, 25 Investigates has been hearing from viewers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are struggling to file for unemployment assistance – those who are not being counted in the state’s unemployment rate.

Sara Marino of Foxboro contacted us after nearly seven frustrating weeks of trying to contact the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA).

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“I don’t have a job. I have no money coming in. I’m a single parent,” Marino told 25 Investigates. “I had actually asked the girl who finally called me ‘Is there anything that I did wrong or anything that you need from me to move this forward?’ And she said, ‘No. We’re just going to escalate it to see why.’”

That was three weeks ago, according to Marino, who was laid off from her job at a national flower delivery company, and she still is waiting to hear back. Once her claim is processed she will be officially counted and will join the 30 million individuals in the U.S. who are currently unemployed.

Kim Zappala, a hairdresser from Haverhill, contacted 25 Investigates for help after being denied benefits for insufficient wages.

“I made $500 too little last year, in order to qualify to collect,” said Zappala, who was unable to work for four months following elbow surgery. “I was out of work. I would have made it if I hadn't been out of work for my arm surgery.”

According to DUA’s unemployment guide, individuals “must have earned at least $5,100 during the four calendar quarters in which you file for UI benefits.”

Meanwhile, those who do not have sufficient wages for regular UI are eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in many instances. The federal pandemic unemployment assistance falls under the CARES act, the roughly $2 trillion economic relief package. It is supposed to provide up to 39 weeks of compensation to people not eligible for regular benefits.

Several viewers tell 25 Investigates they are also having difficulties being accepted by that program. Tara O’Loughlin from Worcester who is self-employed wrote in an email: “Neither system seems to be able to accommodate those of us that are both W2 and self-employed. I had to close my business yet don’t qualify for assistance? This doesn’t seem right.”

But according to John Chuang, the CEO of Boston-based staffing company Aquent there a lot of people, like O’Loughlin, who are not getting counted.

“They’re executing this through 50 state unemployment offices. Those offices are totally overwhelmed with just normal applications,” said Chuang. “Governments are rushing to give aid to these folks and the system, and the structures just aren’t there yet.”

Chuang adds that the traditional method of measuring unemployment is not set up for people on the fringes of the workforce and, therefore, many are finding themselves on the outs. He says people who are self-employed may be eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program and urges people to be persistent.

“I’m just afraid it’s going to put us so far back that we’re not going to be able to dig us out of it,” said Zappala, the hairdresser from Haverhill.

For more information about the state’s COVID-19 unemployment assistance programs, visit the state’s website here.

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