I’m sad to report that I was among those laid off last week by Valley Advocate parent company Newspapers of New England, which also owns the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Greenfield Recorder. As you can see, I’m still here writing the Advocate’s editorials, which I’m doing now as a freelancer, but the reality of unemployment still stings — and due to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s a reality I now share with millions of other Americans.
Many of us have had the good fortune to avoid interacting with the unemployment systems of our respective states. I’ve been laid off before — subject to the wobbles of the precarious financial situation of the journalism industry — but during that time I was single, living cheaply, and able to scrounge together enough freelance assignments to keep myself off of the unemployment rolls. This time, as sole breadwinner for my family, with a cooped-up toddler and a pregnant wife ready to give birth any day now, there has been no way to avoid it.
What I can report back so far: we don’t treat our unemployed very well.
First off, one of the basics of unemployment benefits in Massachusetts is that your benefit is equal to half of what you made on average in the previous year. That means if you’re a minimum- or low-wage worker, you’re still making much less than a formerly high-wage worker, even though you’re equally unemployed.
Next, if you have children, the state provides a teeny, tiny benefit of $25 per week per child, which is pathetic considering the cost of food and diapers, let alone education or day care costs.
Third, it takes a long time to get benefits. Those applying usually must file for a “waiting week,” in which no benefits are provided but you still need to fill out the forms before receiving aid in any subsequent week. The website also says that most claims are processed in 21 to 28 days.
In addition, the online platform itself — which can be accessed at https://www.mass.gov/how-to/apply-for-unemployment-benefits — is hopelessly antiquated and in my experience contains glitches and bugs. And one more insult — it has hours of operation and is closed down between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. each day. What other website in the world does that?
Frustratingly there is no phone number you can call for benefit claims. You must instead fill out a request form with your information on it and wait for a call back if you have a question.
Here are a few things I have found helpful thus far, though I must admit that as of this writing I have only received a determination of how much I would be paid if and when my claim is processed, and due to website glitches I have not been able to successfully file a claim.
1) Have all of your documents with you, including your former employer’s official address and phone number, social security cards and birth certificates for any dependents, your own social security number, a check from your checking account if you wish to get direct deposit.
2) Call your state Representative for questions or help. Much of what a state representative does is constituent services, including helping people who are recently out of work claim unemployment benefits. My representative, Lindsay Sabadosa, spoke with me about my issues with the state’s website, and the next day my claim had moved forward a significant step. Someone on the other end of the state’s unemployment site even responded by phone to my contact request. You can find who your representative is and how to contact them at https://malegislature.gov/search/findmylegislator.
3) Don’t give up. It may not be easy running through what can feel like an intentionally shoddy system, but this is money set aside for you through your employer to get through this crisis, which if you’re laid off is both a national crisis and a personal one. The form to contact the office is at https://www.mass.gov/forms/covid-19-department-of-unemployment-assistance-contact-request.
The coronavirus crisis has led to some significant positive developments with regard to unemployment. A national bill signed into law late last week will provide $1,200 to each adult and $500 for each child dependent without having to do anything. The bill also adds $600 to weekly unemployment benefit amounts, meaning that most low and middle-wage workers in Massachusetts will — for a period of a few months — receive more in unemployment benefits than they would if they were working. In the state of Massachusetts, the unemployment system has waived the “waiting week” and will also waive the requirement that those receiving unemployment benefits must be actively looking for work if they lost their job or can’t work due to a reason related to COVID-19, and there is wide latitude to claim that this is the case.
At the same time, these changes are imperfect. In particular, undocumented people are royally screwed out of these benefits — denied not only access to unemployment, which requires a social security number, but also the one-time payments, which will not go to undocumented individuals, even though many of them pay taxes through their employers.
This is a crisis that our unemployment system is ill equipped to handle. Even with my considerable privilege — I’m a white, straight man, I’m documented, and my occupation provides me with experience navigating bureaucracy and access to individuals inside the system — it’s been a considerable slog wading to the point that I have, and I still have yet to successfully file a claim. As I’m learning, along with millions of other Americans, immense reforms are needed, both short and long term.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.