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One Year Into The Pandemic, Unemployment Benefits Provide A Lifeline

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  It’s been exactly one year since 63-year-old Lucia Romero was laid off from her maintenance job. 

“It was exactly on March 23 last year that I was laid off,” Romero said in Spanish. “I was employed for 33 years with a maintenance company.” 

Romero cleaned offices for the Aetna Building in Hartford, and after she was laid off, she initially lost access to her health insurance.

“I consider that to be my biggest loss, my health insurance benefits,” said Romero. 

 

She was able to receive some coverage as a member of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union. She also became one of the 580,000 people in Connecticut who had to depend on unemployment benefits in the past year. In late March, the state assistance provided Romero with $240 weekly, about half of her weekly wages. From April to July, she also qualified for federal unemployment assistance.

 

Once the pandemic hit the state, the Department of Labor was hit with a tsunami of requests for unemployment benefits. Early on, some people waited as long as four to six weeks to receive assistance. Although benefit distribution remains a challenge, Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said the department continues to upgrade its antiquated technology and infrastructure and hire more agents to help fill requests. 

 

“The most important takeaways from the last year have been our ability to deliver $7.5 billion in benefits to the claimants all across the state,” said Westby. “We’ve had to parse together and build a proverbial plane as we fly it.”

 

Since March of last year, the Connecticut Department of Labor has received 1.4 million unemployment applications. Before the pandemic, the DOL averaged 40,000 weekly applications. By May of last year, the number of claims was 10 times higher and peaked at 400,000 filers in one week. The current number of claims is about five times the normal rate. And Westby said modernization of the UI system is continuing. 

“There’s constant tweaking and constant programming and constant fixing that we’re doing. And we’ve done that. We’ve survived that,” said Westby. 

Pre-pandemic, applicants also could rely on one of the 18 job centers around the state and receive in-person service with an agent individually processing applications. 

 

With the shutdowns, however, that was no longer the case. Deputy Commissioner Dante Bartolomeo said the department used federal funding to hire and train 100 agents to help with the influx of applicants. 

“Each day, we’re doing about 6,600 interactions. Live agents [are] helping people -- whether responding to emails that are submitted through the website or receiving calls,” said Bartolomeo. “There’s about 5,100 callers per day that we’re able to communicate with or assist. That’s a tremendous place from where we came.” 

The Department of Labor also was able to reduce the average wait time to receive benefits to one to three days. New services include call scheduling, text alerts and virtual chat services. The agency also continues to train and add to its staff. 

 

The system has also administered the series of federal unemployment programs under the CARES ACT, and CARES ACT II, and it will now help administer funds made available under the American Rescue Plan. 

At the same time, the department is also preparing for an influx of applicants renewing their benefits. 

 

“We’re going to get about 150,000 applications starting this week for the next six weeks for people to reapply for a second benefit year,” said Bartolomeo. 

 

Unemployment in the state stands at 8.1%, and many long-term unemployed residents like Lucia Romero are still in limbo. For Romero, these benefits are a lifeline. She’s hoping to go back to her job of 33 years but worries it may not exist in the future. 

"Finding a new job at my age would be like starting over," said Romero. 

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

 

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