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Laid-off workers seek answers from labor department as unemployment rates skyrocket

As the number of laid-off workers skyrockets amid business closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people feel they've been left in the dark when it comes to filing for, or receiving, unemployment benefits.

The Department of Labor announced Thursday that this week alone, another 6.6 million Americans filed for the benefits, bringing the total of claims in the last few weeks to about 17 million.

Offices that handle in-person claims are closed to the public, and signs on the doors instruct people to call or go online for more information. Phone operators instruct callers to go on the website, which assures visitors that the department is working diligently on their claims.

But those who don't have access to the internet — or whose questions aren't answered in the website's FAQs — have no idea what's going on.

"They've left us with no options," said Montville resident Ed Vilkish, who was laid off from his part-time job at a mechanic garage in mid-March and went weeks without receiving any payments or information regarding his unemployment benefits.

"I don't have a computer at home, I'm not on the internet or anything like that," the 69-year-old said. "I was calling every day, but there's no way to get any information from them."

Vilkish called the labor department and was told that if he couldn't file online, he should visit the nearest office. He visited the American Job Center in Montville for help, but it was closed. A sign on the door told him to call for help. When he called, an automatic message again told him to go online and suggested that those who can't access the internet should go to the nearest location.

He said there were several others outside the Montville office who were in the same situation, and no one knew what to do.

"There's a lot of us in the world that don't have the internet," he said. "We're stuck, we have no other options."

Paul Oates, a spokesman for the Department of Labor, said this week that people who don't have access to a computer should "go to a friend's house or go to a library."

Libraries across the state are closed and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging strict social distancing guidelines that discourage people from going into others' homes. 

When reminded of those guidelines, Oates suggested, "They can use their phones." For those who don't have smartphones, he again suggested using a friend or family member's phone or computer and wiping it down afterward to prevent the spread of the virus.

"They'll have to make some kind of accommodation," he said.

For those who don't have access to another person's phone or computer, or who want to follow social distancing guidelines, Oates said "they can go to our website and visit the frequently asked questions section."

Previously, when Vilkish needed to use a computer, he would go to the senior center, but those facilities are closed, too. He knew he needed to file a weekly claim, and was making every effort to do so, but couldn't find a way to file.

$35 million paid out

More than 302,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Connecticut since March 13, according to the state Department of Labor.

DOL has processed nearly 133,000 of those claims, providing more than $35 million in benefits payments — a more than 100% increase in the amount of benefits paid out in the previous week — and is working to tackle the backlog.

"We recognize the critical role unemployment insurance plays, as it provides a lifeline to people who are out of work," state Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said. "During this time of need, the agency is working extra hours and weekends to process claims as quickly as possible and to program in computer changes to accommodate the new federal programs that will provide additional unemployment benefits."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the commissioner said the department typically would handle 3,000 new claims a week. In the past 21 days, it has received more claims than it would normally handle in 18 months. The department has quadrupled its staff from 20 to 80 workers.

Chris Kinsman of Groton has been calling. An elevator mechanic, he was laid off in the beginning of March because of COVID-19. He received two unemployment checks, but then they stopped.

He checked online and saw a message that his account is on hold "pending an issue." He has no idea what that issue is or how to find out. His last two weeks of payment are showing as "on hold," with no dollar amount listed.

He has had no luck reaching anyone over the phone.

"I go through the menus and no matter what menu I pick, it hangs up on me and there's no indication that it's closed or that they aren't answering calls, so I don't know what the status is," Kinsman said. "It's frustrating that there are no resources."

He said that he and his wife, who is still working, have enough savings to buy groceries and essentials, but he doesn't know how much longer they'll be able to stretch their finances.

Annie Douton of New London is worried about the same thing.

Douton, who has a teenage son she is trying to home-school, was laid off from her job as a bartender at the La Luna bar in the Holiday Inn in New London in mid-March due to the pandemic.

She has worked at the bar for two years and has been in the restaurant and bar industry her whole career. She filed for unemployment when she was laid off but hasn't received any checks or heard anything about the status of her claims.

She has some savings but is worried about how she and her son will survive when that runs out, and knows many of her co-workers live paycheck to paycheck and don't have money to buy groceries or other necessities until their unemployment payments come in.

"We were all just cut off and now we can't get any answers," she said. "There's so many people out there that this affects, it's heartbreaking."

Claims are retroactive

During Gov. Ned Lamont's news conference Wednesday, Westby said the state is working on Plan B — a technical fix that would push claims through an automated system, reducing the now estimated 5- to 6-week wait time for payments.

Westby said the Department of Labor is hoping to "seriously reduce the backlog" in a matter of days with the new method.

"The agency appreciates the public's patience as it works to process the thousands of claims that have been filed as a result of the pandemic. Although there continues to be a six-week backlog, all eligible claims will be processed, paid, and retroactive to the date they were filed," he said.

Those who haven't received their unemployment benefits yet will receive back pay in addition to the $600 bonuses for unemployed workers included in the stimulus package.

"We are getting your claims out and processing them as quickly as possible and with our next technical fix we expect to drastically reduce the backlog," said Westby. "Please bear with us."

Call finally comes

On Wednesday, Vilkish received a call from the Department of Labor and was told that someone from DOL would help him file his weekly unemployment claims and he would be paid retroactively for the past few weeks.

Vilkish said that he was grateful that the department reached out and answered his questions but was still concerned for other folks who haven't gotten the answers they need. When he asked what people should do if they can't access the internet and don't get a call, he said he was told to call his state representative with his concerns.

"My questions were answered, but it's not just me, people shouldn't have to go through this," Vilkish said.

t.hartz@theday.com

Tips for filing

People who have filed for unemployment should check their email daily for updates and next steps and those who still need to file should do so by visiting www.filectui.com to be processed through the new automated system.

Nancy Steffens of the state Department of Labor said that until a procedure is in place for people without internet access, they should call DOL at (860) 263-6975 or (203) 455-2653 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday or have a friend with a computer or smartphone send a request for assistance to dol.webhelp@ct.gov">dol.webhelp@ct.gov. They can expect a response in five to seven business days, she said.

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