/Mississippi is fighting an uphill battle with jobless claims A decades-long shift in employment strategy didn’t help

Mississippi is fighting an uphill battle with jobless claims A decades-long shift in employment strategy didn’t help

After her online unemployment claim was flagged, she was placed on hold by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security call center. After a record number lost their jobs due to the coronavirus spreading, Congress passed a $600 increase in weekly unemployment benefits to July 31, and gave states the ability to relax eligibility restrictions. Many Mississippians who are eligible have not received a dime since they cannot get to the state office. Flint stated that he believes a lot people went through the same thing as Flint. They just panicked. Flint, a Jackson resident, was just one of many frustrated Mississippians trying to reach the agency overwhelmed with people in need of its services. Although the department typically handles approximately 1,000 new unemployment claims per week, it began receiving up to 46,000 claims per week after COVID-19 cancellations and closures. Flint said, “There are X amount of phone lines and the X number people.” She finally got in touch with someone within the department after three weeks. Flint received her first payment Monday. But what I discovered was that those people work really hard. “The odds are insurmountable.” According to the state, more than 35,000 Mississippians applied last week for unemployment. This brings the total number of claimants for unemployment to more than 203,000 from March 15 through April 25. This number is probably an underestimate. This unprecedented rise would overwhelm any system, and these issues — long waiting times and crashed websites — have affected states across the country. A former employee of the agency and a state leader claim that the problems are being exacerbated by changes in leadership at Mississippi’s unemployment agency and a lack of institutional knowledge about the program over the past two decades. Interviews with agency personnel revealed that the state was unable to manage the crisis because of shifting priorities away from unemployment. Harvey Moss, a former lawmaker, said that if there were more offices and more workers, the state would be better equipped to handle the extra load. He was the chairman of the House’s Labor Committee during the 2000s. Moss stated that the state’s unemployment office was once under the control of a commission which “had a lot institutional knowledge that rose through the ranks”. However, the Legislature abolished that body in 2004 to create an agency with an appointed executive director. Moss stated that he was disturbed by the decision to eliminate the commission. Since then, agency leaders who are appointed by the governor have not been from unemployment backgrounds. Amy Vetter, a former Employment Security Business Systems analyst, stated that the agency also lost long-term unemployment insurance employees. She said “there are not many people left with the knowledge base.” Moss also said that many of the WIN Job Centers were closed and consolidated by the department, which allowed jobless workers to meet with specialists in person. Moss stated that “We’re paying it now.” Moss said, “We’re paying for it now.” Before the pandemic, a person could apply for unemployment at any WIN Job Center. However, if they had any problems with their claim, they would have to contact the same state office. The Legislature cut the amount of taxes that employers had to pay into the unemployment trust fund in 2005, right before the record-breaking hurricane Katrina unemployment rush. This fund provides benefits for people who lose their jobs due to no fault of their own. People who are unable to work or quit their jobs do not qualify. This shift in priorities occurred during Gov. Haley Barbour was also a dissident in 2009 after the Great Recession. He also refused to use more than $50 million of federal stimulus money for the unemployment program. He would have to expand eligibility and provide benefits for part-time workers to be eligible to use it. Cecil Brown, a former lawmaker and financial advisor who was previously the director of Department of Finance and Administration, said that Haley Barbour wasn’t a fan of unemployment. Dianne Bell, spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, said that no agency officials were available to interview this reporter. Long-time Mississippi businessman and lawmaker John Polk claims he has not seen any changes in the agency’s functions. He attributes the current problems to the inevitable system overload caused by the pandemic. Senator John Polk, R.Hattiesburg, said that he has not noticed any change in the agency’s operations since he was in business for 40 years. He also owns a family meat company. Mississippi lawmakers have repeatedly rejected increases to weekly unemployment benefits, which at $235 per week are the lowest in the country. They argued that this could adversely impact the economy. Former Gov. Phil Bryant said, “I feel sometimes we are incentivizing individuals not to work.” Phil Bryant, who was serving as lieutenant governor, opposed the 2008 increase in benefits. Mississippi has one of the strictest eligibility requirements. A person cannot be eligible for benefits if he or she is unable to provide child care or transportation. Only one-tenth these jobless workers receive state benefits. This is why the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which also funds community college job training, has soared to $710 million in 2019. In contrast, the benefits paid to unemployed workers that year were $60.6 million. Governor. Tate Reeves declared that Mississippi would no longer require work searches for unemployment or have a one-week waiting period during which an individual is not normally paid. Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27. It increased benefits and extended eligibility to those normally disqualified from benefits, such as self-employed workers and people who have quit their jobs as a result of COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Labor provided guidance on how to implement the changes on April 4, 5, and 10, but the department was unable to do much. Even then, it proved difficult to alter the software that the state uses online to automatically review claims. For example, the system kept notifying people that they had to conduct work searches several weeks after the state removed the requirement. The state was still among the first to issue the $600 additional to people approved for unemployment on April 10, and it officially updated the system to accept Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims from those who are eligible under expanded eligibility (e.g. 1099 workers) on April 21. Mississippi is not the only state facing greater challenges. Other states have more complicated unemployment applications systems than Mississippi. Some still use COBOL programming. This screen has a black background with lime green letters. Mississippi was the first state to modernize its unemployment claims technology, contracting Tata Consultancy Services in 2004. In 2018, the state signed a $72.7 million, five-year contract with Tata Consultancy Services. Vetter stated that Mississippi’s tech is “sound”. Vetter stated that the tech in Mississippi is sound. Flint, for example, initially claimed she was on leave when she submitted her claim. However, she should have chosen that she was laid off. The website requires claimants to answer a series of detailed questions that can be interpreted differently by different users. Vetter stated that the process is essential to identify fraudulent filings. This means that more people will require assistance to file their claims. Vetter’s task was to communicate with the agency’s needs, and the interpretation of federal law, to the tech developers who would then make adjustments within the system. Interviews show that Mississippi’s problems today are not with technology but staff coordination. The agency has almost tripled its staff in call centers since the pandemic. Many of these temporary workers were brought on by Horne LLP, an accounting firm. However, delays continue. Officials have requested patience from applicants and will issue backpay to claimants who are having difficulty navigating the system. Flint stated that she doesn’t believe we can completely bash the department as doing so would be a discrediting of a lot good people who risk their health to try and solve our problem. “It can work.” It can work.