Here’s why there’s a backlog of claims for unemployment and why it’s only getting worse. USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS – A busy signal.
Again, and again, and again.
This is the sound of defeat as your finances flatline.
Hours go by. Days go by. Rent is due.
You dial 800 times on Tuesday. Incoming calls from family and friends are ignored. On Wednesday, you stop counting after 488 times. On Thursday, you don’t call at all.
A hopeless thought nags you: What’s the point?
You redial so much it’s like breathing, trying the number over and over as you brush your teeth, make coffee and throw clothes in the dryer. You forget to eat.
Around 11:30 a.m., you get through.
The ringing triggers adrenaline that momentarily quells the fist of anxiety in your chest. You press “3” to speak with a claims representative. A robotic male voice greets you. He seems nice.
“Due to heavy call volumes, our telephone queue is already full for the day, and no further calls can be accommodated before close of business. Please call back during our next business day.”
In the wake of COVID-19, that’s the story unfolding for thousands of jobless Nevadans lost in an overwhelmed unemployment system when a claim is flagged.
It could be a missing number or a past job change that commands the automated system to single out a person who is out of work and becoming more and more desperate for funds as the bills pile up.
You get sent to a “Telephone Claims Center.”
Nowhere to go
Mike Guilbault switched from fast food breakfast burritos to oatmeal to save money.
As the first of May approached, the 39-year-old Downtown Las Vegas resident called his landlord to let him know the money would be late.
He worked as a driver dropping off audio-visual equipment at conferences. After the pandemic shuttered the state and cancellations swept the valley, he lost his job.
On March 28, he got his last check.
He filed for unemployment online, but his claim got flagged.
At his last job, Guilbault gave two weeks notice to take another position elsewhere, but the company did not honor the two weeks. That two-week gap in employment, he said, could be the reason why he was directed him to the “Telephone Claims Center.”
But he’s not sure.
He wakes before 8 a.m. every day. He dials.
“It’s grueling,” Guilbault said. “You stop whenever you get fed up. All you’re thinking about is all the things you need money for.”
Before May’s rent and bills came due, Guilbault had less than $1,200 in the bank. His rent is $995. That’s on top of phone charges, groceries, credit card and car payments.
He used his stimulus check to pay April’s rent. He’s paying minimum on his credit cards. He got his car payment deferred. But his options are now dwindling.
All he can do is keep dialing.
“If I was younger, I’d be willing to pack up and move,” he said.
That’s what he did in 2008. He lost his job as a truck driver in Boston. He moved west for fresh start in a new town and eventually settled in Las Vegas.
That’s not an option this time.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “Nor do I have the resources. That’s just reality, and I still have a job waiting for me when this is all over.”
Guilbault’s mother lives in a New Hampshire two-bedroom apartment on social security. She has three cats. He has two dogs.
“It doesn’t work,” he said.
On Thursday morning, more than a month after getting his last check, he called Nevada’s unemployment line more than 800 times.
He listened to the busy signal.
Again, and again, and again.
When using one phone doesn’t work, try two.
It’s a philosophy formed in the throes of unemployment desperation.
That’s why Nikki Wallerstein borrowed her sister’s cell phone and used a simultaneous dialing tactic to hammer the claims line, a measure that doubled her call volume.
“It’s like trying to win the lottery,” she said.
Wallerstein now lives with family in Peoria, Arizona. But she spent most of 2019 working in Nevada. She now works part-time, her hours atrophied and finances strained.
She tried to file for unemployment online, but her account claim was flagged. The website directed her to the “Telephone Claims Center.”
After losing her job at the start of the pandemic, Connie Boyd is one of the millions of Americans now relying on unemployment benefits. When she’ll return to work is anyone’s guess. (April 23) AP Domestic
The 35-year-old property management professional spent weeks dialing.
Time and time again, that busy signal greeted her. Anxiety colored everything.
“I was afraid I was going to lose reception,” Wallerstein said. “If I lose reception, I lose my place in line.”
She eventually got a human voice on the line.
After the call, the exchange that was supposed to fix everything, that anxiety remained.
“I didn’t feel confident when I got off the phone,” she said.
Wallerstein is still unsure whether or not her claim was approved.
‘I haven’t heard from anyone’
As a quality inspector at Tesla, Claudette Hagen spent a lot of time traveling between Reno and Las Vegas. But the flying got to be too much.
The 38-year-old Southern Nevada native quit Tesla and returned to Sin City with plans to get certified as a concrete quality inspector.
In the meantime, Hagen applied as a cocktail waitress.
She landed a job at Sam’s Town on Feb. 8, started her first shift on Feb. 24 and earned two paychecks. On March 17, Sam’s Town let her go.
She tried to file for unemployment online. The website flagged her claim. She woke early to play the dialing game.
When she finally got through to the “Telephone Claims Center,” she learned she needed an adjudicator to resolve the snag.
“The lady said somebody is going to have to call me,” Hagen said. “I haven’t heard from anyone. No letter, no phone calls.”
The upside: Hagen is good about saving money. There’s cash in her account to pay bills. But that money is sitting untouched for a reason.
“I was saving to get a house,” Hagen said. “I don’t want to sit on my savings and blow it.”
Unwilling to burn her reserves, Hagen set out to find a job and soon landed a gig.
“Amazon,” she said.
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA Today Network. Do you care about democracy? Then support local journalism by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal right here.
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