In March, Hannah Priest filed for unemployment for the first time in her life. The St. Louis restaurant where she worked as a server, Union Loafers, closed dine-in service because of the pandemic.
A simple mistake on her application set her back weeks. She quickly realized the error, but day after day couldn’t cut through the busy phone lines of the Missouri Department of Labor. Meanwhile, she watched the balance in her bank account dwindle.
Priest is one of the hundreds of thousands in Missouri who made unemployment insurance claims as the coronavirus outbreak drove employers to furlough and lay off workers. She’s also among many who say they’ve been frustrated navigating an overwhelmed state unemployment system.
Eventually, a friend gave her a direct number for a specialist at the department who fixed her application. Priest said if she hadn’t gotten that number, she’s not sure she would have gotten through.
“I'd call every other day, and no matter what time of the day I called, it said that everyone was busy and it was so busy that you couldn't even get onto the wait line to be answered,” she said.
Priest received her first payment Monday.
“Overall it didn’t take too-too much time, but it was pretty scary when you couldn’t talk to anyone and you didn’t know whether it was actually going to work,” Priest said.
‘A brand-new environment’
New unemployment claims increased tenfold in a week in mid-March, eclipsing levels at the height of the Great Recession. Recently, applications have slowed, but the state Labor Department is still handling tens of thousands more applications than usual. That’s in part because new federal programs have qualified workers who wouldn’t normally be eligible for unemployment benefits.
The department reports it paid more than 225,000 out-of-work Missourians in mid-April — up from about 17,000 around the same time last year.
Department of Labor secretary Anna Hui said in April that the agency was fielding more than 100,000 calls and emails per day and intended to train personnel from other departments to help handle the calls.
A spokesperson for the department this week said that new staff has already been trained, but many of the more complicated questions still require “experienced specialists” to answer. The spokesperson recommended that people watch how-to videos or try the department’s virtual assistant if they can’t reach a staff member or answer their question on the coronavirus updates page.
Increased applications and call volume have spurred Legal Services of Eastern Missouri to help low-income workers apply for unemployment benefits. The nonprofit organization also offers legal aid and assists people appeal denied claims.
Jim Guest, who directs the legal services’ volunteer lawyers program, said the federal aid programs offer good options for unemployed people. And he thinks the state Labor Department is handling the call volume well, considering the unprecedented number of applications.
But he said a bit of extra help could make the process smoother.
“We want to help people make sure that they know what they’re doing when they apply, make sure that when they apply they know how to do it,” Guest said. “But it is a brand-new environment, and we've never been through anything like this.”
New and different programs
Some Missourians, like Gabriel Wagner, are still navigating the ever-changing unemployment rules. Wagner applied for unemployment in March after her employer, 5 Star Burgers, closed its Clayton restaurant because of the pandemic.
She was denied. She doesn’t qualify for state unemployment because she took unpaid maternity leave in 2019.
“It just seems like I'm being punished because I had a child, and now I'm not getting any unemployment when I lost my job just like everyone else did,” she said.
Normally, that would be the end of the process for Wagner. But because the pandemic caused her layoff, she could be eligible for new federal aid programs launched since March.
That’s what Wagner said she’s hoping for. A Labor Department representative she called offered to check whether she qualified for federal aid such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. But she is still waiting for an update.
“It is just a nightmare trying to get a hold of people,” Wagner said. “If I didn’t have a boyfriend that is getting unemployment [money], I would be completely screwed.”
In the meantime, bills are due, and Wagner still isn’t sure whether she qualifies for any of the new federal programs.
Guest, with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said that his program hopes to answer some of these questions for people. The agency is hosting a Facebook Live chat at 3 p.m. Thursday to explain unemployment applications and answer questions.
Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org