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In US, coronavirus jobless battle bureaucracy

Julia Mahncke
June 20, 2020

As cases of COVID-19 rise in the US, more than 13% of Americans are out of a job. A teacher and an entertainer talk about their difficulties in a state where the unemployment claims system has broken down multiple times.

An application deposit box sits on a table outside a job center
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. V. Solis

"Oh my, now what?" was Tabitha Carson's reaction when in March, on Friday the 13th of all days, she realized it would be her last day as a substitute teacher until further notice. Governor Kate Brown had not yet issued a stay-at-home order in Oregon, but she was closing all schools. With no kids in school, substitutes were no longer needed. The West Coast state had not seen many COVID-19 cases at that point, but being sandwiched between California and Washington — which had become hot spots for the virus — called for caution. 

Carson, who has worked as a substitute teacher in the city of Eugene since 2007, calls herself lucky: She had savings, her husband's job at UPS and her daughter's job at a local food bank were deemed essential, and Carson's school district sent one more check for the hours in April that she would have worked. "So far the money I had saved up has covered my expenses," Carson says.

Read more: Coronaviru lockdowns prevented the worst, researchers say

The 63-year-old also applied for jobless benefits in April, but has not heard back. As an independent contractor, she would normally not be eligible to receive payments, but during the pandemic additional funding has been made available to help people like her.

The Oregon Employment Department (OED), however, was not prepared for the high number of applications. The claim system has broken down multiple times, and at the end of May the director of the OED resigned at the request of Governor Brown. At the time there was a backlog of tens of thousands of unprocessed unemployment cases. Oregon is not alone in this. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics saw many states reporting record numbers in April. Nevada is currently the unfortunate leader with a jobless rate of over 28%. 

'I feel privileged'

Carson is still hoping her file will be processed, while she is disappointed with her government. "I think the local people, the smaller groups, the school district itself, the city of Eugene — they were better prepared than the state of Oregon or the United States as a whole," she says.

Her income typically covers the phone bill for four people, rent for a storage unit and taking the family out to dinner, concerts or a camping trip once in a while. Her husband's job pays for the mortgage, power and other household expenses. The two live with a daughter and their 3-year-old grandson in a 1978 home at the end of a cul-de-sac. Theirs is the only house left from that era on their street, surrounded by houses built in the 2000s, worth almost double.

Tabitha Carson
Tabitha Carson was lucky to have savings and a partner who kept his jobImage: Privat

"I feel privileged," says Carson. She hears a lot of stories from friends who are on their own and struggling. One is a government employee who has disabilities and could not do his job from home. He didn't receive unemployment benefits for two months and paying rent became difficult.

Another friend, a nail technician, is taking care of a sick father and only works for a small number of clients at their homes. She is relying on free food boxes provided by a school.

For now, Carson says, she and her family can cover the bills, and she's hoping to be able to resume her job when schools — possibly — reopen in October.

'I was expecting more'

Paul Iarrobino and his husband live in the Hollywood District of Portland, Oregon's most populous city. The 57-year old organizes storytelling events with an emphasis on amplifying voices that are outside the mainstream. Iarrobino thought he had a solid 2020 ahead of him. He was invited to a prestigious festival and received a grant worth thousands of dollars to do his work.

Then COVID-19 hit. The stay-at-home orders that followed wiped his work calendar clean. No events meant no income. "If I was by myself, I'd have a major problem right now," he says.

The couple is only able to pay their mortgage and other bills at the moment because Iarrobino's partner, an engineer, is able to work from home. Of the Oregon Employment Department, Iarrobino says: "It's a broken system that's held together with Krazy Glue and duct tape." In March he applied for jobless benefits and was denied. In April he applied again to the newly set up Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program for people who are not able to work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, specifically those who are self-employed or gig workers. 

Paul Iarrobino in a field of sunflowers
Despite everything, Paul Iarrobino remains optimisticImage: Arnel Mandilag

"I was expecting more," Iarrobino says. "I really was. I thought, OK, it's going to be slower. But, you know, I can call and somebody can help me." Instead he felt the agency was lying about glitches and workflows. Iarrobino kept receiving emails that confirmed his submission of claims, which are required weekly, but in a recent 90-minute phone call with one of the OED's agents, he was told that files got lost and were not showing up in the system. "It's a lot of time on hold," he says. "I've had several people tell me different answers to my questions."

'Some are suicidal'

Iarrobino is in a Facebook group where Oregonians exchange information about their unemployment applications. "Some people in there are suicidal," says Iarrobino. Members vent about the lack of progress, others ask about the best phone numbers to call or how to get help from their member of Congress.

While there are still people desperate to get word, it seems the OED is slowly catching up on its case workload and approving claims: more and more people have recently begun posting pictures of checks the office had sent them to cover the time they've been unemployed, going back to mid-March.

Read more: How millions of America's temporary layoffs could be permanent

The computer system used by the OED was built in the 1990s. Even though the state received $86 million (€76 million) from the federal government in 2009 to update the aging setup, first steps toward modernizing the system were only taken a few years ago. The estimated completion date is 2025. Paired with a record number of over 300,000 claims since the coronavirus crisis started, the OED is struggling to handle the unexpected workload. The agency has promised to process every application and claim submitted. They have even enlisted the help of the National Guard and are trying to update citizens via online webinars and Twitter. 

More than three months after the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Iarrobino has now not only recovered from a COVID-19 infection, he has also received word that his claim is being processed. In addition, he has been able to transfer some of his work online and is helping older adults cope with the pandemic through online meetings.

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