As unemployment claims grow, so does frustration with Mass. unemployment agency

BOSTON — Massachusetts will need more than a million dollars from the federal government to continue to pay unemployment benefits.

Governor Charlie Baker requested a loan from the U.S. Department of Labor today to help fund the unemployment system and continue to provide assistance to the record number of people who have been laid off across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In just the past five weeks more people have filed for unemployment in Massachusetts than in the previous three years combined, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor. But those numbers only represent the people who have managed to start and complete the process of filing a claim.

25 Investigates has heard from hundreds of people who are still waiting to file and receive a much-needed paycheck.

“The frustrating part for me was there's just no communication,” said Loretta Kennedy of Worcester.

Kennedy is one face of the unemployment disaster in Massachusetts. But, she is one of the fortunate ones. Her application for unemployment compensation was finally approved on Tuesday, five weeks after she first submitted it online.

“I requested six different times to speak to somebody. But I got no, no information back. Nobody would return a phone call. Nobody emailed me back,” she said.

Kennedy’s story is just one of dozens received by our station from frustrated viewers each day.

Vanessa McHugh also filed for unemployment five weeks ago after the tobacco shop she manages in Lowell shut down.

“I have done a claim for a callback probably about over 20 times within this past month, with nobody reaching out to me. We haven't gotten an eviction notice or anything yet. It's just been very frustrating trying to figure it all out,” Vanessa McHugh of Lowell told 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel through tears.

Last week, 80,153 new unemployment claims were filed in Massachusetts alone, bringing the state’s total number of claims to 651, 457 since March 15.

The sectors that have been hit the hardest are restaurant and retail, hotel and hospitality, healthcare, social services and construction.

“I'm sure that [Governor Charlie Baker] wants to get this fixed,” said Gregory Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute, adding that while making people wait weeks for answers is unacceptable it is important to consider what the agency is up against.

“What's happening to the unemployment office is the equivalent of a gas station that can take 100 customers an hour, except 7,000 customers are showing up an hour,” said Sullivan. “They've had to do three years’ worth of claims in a couple of weeks.”

25 Investigates brought some of the issues our viewers are having with the unemployment agency directly to the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA).

In an emailed statement a spokesman said: "The Department of Unemployment Assistance is focused on supporting workers through these challenging times and continues to process new claims as quickly as possible. The Department continues to prioritize efforts to process claims through the online system and by phone, and has deployed over 900 new employees to work remotely to help meet the increased volume. The Department has made over 150,000 contacts and is now connecting with over 25,000 individuals every single day and has held 35 unemployment town halls in both English and Spanish, which have been attended by nearly 200,000 constituents. DUA will continue to work collaboratively with government, business, labor, and non-profit partners on implementing innovative solutions to support individuals eligible for unemployment and provide the financial assistance they need during this difficult time.”

25 Investigates specifically asked DUA if they are aware that some people have been waiting weeks for a call back. That question did not get addressed.

“What we're seeing across the country is an immense amount of frustration,” said Julia Wolfe, a state economic analyst at the DC-based Economic Policy Institute, whose research shows the unemployment backlog is not only putting individuals’ in financial jeopardy but could slow the economic recovery.

“If throughout this entire time people are losing their income, they're not going to be able to spend, and then we're going to see a decrease in demand [for goods]. And so not only is it bad for individuals, but really for the entire economy,” warned Wolfe.

The state’s unemployment insurance fund has dropped by more than half since the beginning of March, down to about $750 million. And less than two months ago the state’s unemployment rate was below three percent. Now it surpasses 20 percent.

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