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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

During a job fair at the Jackson WIN Job Center, one of several centers run by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, last August, dozens stood in line for their chance to speak with recruiters from Continental Tire.

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

BY ANNA WOLFE | May 3, 2020

After Laura Flint got laid off in late March, she spent hours each day walking around with her cellphone on speakerphone in her pocket.

She was on hold with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s call center, which she was instructed to contact after the online application system flagged her unemployment claim.

More than a month ago, after a record number of Americans began losing their jobs as the coronavirus spread, Congress passed a $600 increase to weekly unemployment benefits until July 31 and allowed states to ease some restrictions on eligibility.

But many Mississippians who qualify have yet to receive a dime because they can’t get through to the state office.

“I think a lot of people did what I did, they just went into panic mode,” Flint said.

Flint, who lives in Jackson, was one of thousands of frustrated Mississippians attempting to reach an agency inundated with people seeking its services. The department usually handles around 1,000 new unemployment claims each week, but after COVID-19 closures and cancellations, the department began receiving as many as 46,000 claims a week.

“There are X number of phone lines and X number of people,” said Flint, who eventually got hold of someone in the department after about three weeks and received her first payment on Monday. “But what I realized is those people are working really hard. The odds are insurmountable.”

The state estimates more than 35,000 Mississippians applied for unemployment just last week for a total of more than 203,000 claimants from March 15 to April 25. The number is likely an under-count.

The unprecedented hike would overwhelm any system and these issues — long wait times and crashed websites — have impacted states across the country.

But a former agency employee and state leader say the problems are exacerbated by leadership changes at Mississippi’s employment agency and a loss of institutional knowledge surrounding the complex program in the last two decades. Because of a shift in priorities away from unemployment, the state was at a further disadvantage to handle the crisis, according to interviews with people close to the agency.

“If we had more offices and more people working, we would be more capable to handle this extra load,” said former lawmaker Harvey Moss, who chaired the former Labor Committee in the House in the early 2000s.

The state’s unemployment office was at one time under the control of a commission that “had a lot of institutional knowledge that came up through the ranks,” Moss said, but the Legislature dismantled that body in 2004 in favor of an agency with an executive director appointed by the governor.

Moss said he remembers finding it disturbing that they did away with the commission and since then, politically appointed agency leaders have not come from an unemployment background.

The agency has also lost longtime unemployment insurance employees, said Amy Vetter, a former Employment Security business systems analyst who left the agency in 2019, and “there’s not many people left that have the knowledge base.”

The department has also closed and consolidated many of the WIN Job Centers, Moss said, where jobless workers could visit with employment specialists in person.

“We’re paying for it now,” Moss said. “Not saying we wouldn’t have been stretched out, but I think we’d be better off.”

Today, WIN Job Centers provide very little unemployment services — beyond claims intake — and are mostly focused on helping people find employment using the Mississippi Works website or other online jobs boards. Just before the pandemic, even when a person physically applied for unemployment inside the WIN Job Center, they had to call the same state office call center if they experienced an issue with their claim.

In 2005, just before the last record-breaking unemployment rush following Hurricane Katrina, the Legislature reduced the percentage of taxes employers must pay into the unemployment insurance trust fund, which supplies benefits to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. People who quit or refuse to work do not qualify.

The shift in priorities came during the administration of Gov. Haley Barbour, who, in the 2009 aftermath of the Great Recession, also rejected more than $50 million in federal stimulus money slotted for the unemployment program. To use it, he would have had to do something he opposed: expand eligibility and offer benefits to part time workers.

“Haley Barbour was not a fan of unemployment,” said Cecil Brown, longtime former lawmaker and financial advisor who previously served as the director of the Department of Finance and Administration.

Mississippi Department of Employment Security spokesperson Dianne Bell said agency officials were not available to conduct an interview for this story. A current lawmaker and longtime Mississippi businessman says he’s witnessed no change in the agency’s functions and chalks up the current issues to an inevitable system overload as a result of the pandemic.

“I have not seen any difference in how the agency has run since I’ve been in business 40 years,” said Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, who owns a family meat business.

Mississippi lawmakers have often rejected raises to weekly unemployment benefits — which at a max of $235 are the lowest in the nation — arguing that doing so could negatively impact the economy.

“I get the feeling sometimes we are incentivizing people not to work,” former Gov. Phil Bryant said in opposition to raising benefits in 2008 while serving as lieutenant governor.

Mississippi also has among the most stringent eligibility requirements: Even if they want to work, a person may not qualify for benefits if they lack child care or transportation. The state’s benefits reach just one-tenth of these jobless workers, one reason why the unemployment insurance trust fund, which also funds job training at community colleges, soared to over $710 million in 2019. By contrast, $60.6 million in benefits were paid to the unemployed that year.

Within one week of his first executive order sending nonessential state employees home, Gov. Tate Reeves announced Mississippi would suspend work search requirements for unemployment and the one-week waiting period for which a person is normally not paid. By March 27, Congress had passed the CARES Act that increased benefit amounts and expanded eligibility to people normally disqualified for benefits — such as self-employed workers or people who quit working as a direct result of COVID-19.

The department couldn’t do much until the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance on implementing the changes on April 4th, 5th and 10th and even then, the software the state uses to automatically review claims online proved tough to manipulate. The system continued to notify people they must conduct work searches weeks after the state waived the requirement, for instance.

Still, the state was among the first to begin issuing the additional $600 to folks approved for unemployment on April 10 and it formally updated the system to accept the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims for the people who qualify under expanded eligibility, such as 1099 workers, on April 21.

Other states are facing deeper challenges than Mississippi because of their archaic unemployment application systems, some of which are still using COBOL programming, characterized by a black screen with lime green lettering. Mississippi was one of the first states to modernize it’s unemployment claims technology beginning with contracting Tata Consultancy Services to build the new software in 2004. The state entered the latest five-year, $72.7 million contract with the company in 2018.

“The tech in Mississippi is sound,” Vetter said. “There isn’t a capacity issue.”

Most hiccups with the online application, which require a person to contact the overloaded call center, arise from two scenarios: the system’s tight security triggers the account to lock so a claimant must request a password reset, or a claimant selects an option that flags their account within the questionnaire.

For example, Flint initially said she was on a leave of absence when she submitted her claim, which disqualified her, but she should have selected that she was laid off. The website asks claimants to answer an exhaustive series of questions, which can be interpreted differently from user to user. But Vetter said the process is crucial to root out fraudulent filings. It also means more people will need a human’s help to successfully file their claim.

Vetter’s job was to communicate the agency’s needs and interpretation of federal law to the tech developers, who would make changes within the system. Today, Mississippi’s deficiencies lie less with technology than staff coordination, according to interviews.

In light of the pandemic, the agency has nearly tripled the staff at its call centers — many of them temporary workers brought on through an emergency contract with accounting firm Horne LLP — but delays persist. The agency will issue backpay to people struggling to get their claim through the system and officials have asked applicants for patience.

“I don’t think we can totally bash the department because in doing, so we’re bashing a lot of good people who are risking their health to go out and try to fix our problem,” Flint said. “I’m at home obsessively dialing their number but they’re up there trying to actually solve our problem.”

“When I finally got through, with persistence, no magic wands or anything like that, it was a very well-trained person who knew what they were doing, took care of business, reassured me and came through for me,” she added. “It can work.”