Thursday, Commissioner Kurt Westby said the Connecticut Department of Labor has paid out $751 million in benefits since March 13 and processed nearly three-quarters of the more than half-million applications it’s received since the pandemic started.
“We are very quickly dispersing a lot of money into the economy and into the pockets of the well-deserved recipients,” Westby said.
There are still people waiting for their unemployment benefits. Some, like Chris Tack, have been waiting since the pandemic hit nearly three months ago.
“I feel like I’m an idiot when I’m doing this but I don’t think I am an idiot. I keep getting all of these mixed messages from their website and from them,” the Milford man said.
Tack is a part-time flight attendant who works on private jets and runs his own sailboat charter business on the Long Island Sound. After applying in March and receiving a “no record found” message he applied again in April. When that didn’t work he tried to apply for the PUA program for the self-employed in May. Again he received the response, “no record found.”
Tack reached out to NBC Connecticut
“I find the process confusing, cumbersome, contradictory and opaque,” he said.
The DOL denied his unemployment benefits and told him apply in North Carolina, where the temp agency that hired him, In-flight Crew Connections (IFCC) is based. However, he said a pilot who works for the same company and also lives in Connecticut was able to collect unemployment here.
Tack provided NBC Connecticut an email from an HR representative at IFCC that stated all “out of state flight crew file for UI in home states.”
“There are instructions in Connecticut UI that allow you to pool income from other states. I still feel it’s appropriate to apply in Connecticut,” Tack said.
Tack said over the last two months he’s tried several times to reach the Connecticut DOL.
“Six seven times, it’s just sitting on hold,” he recalled. “Couple hours at time, 'til I’ve given up. I figure it’s just not going to happen. You can’t communicate with anybody. You can’t sit on hold for two days and talk to somebody.”
Westby announced a solution to the problem, what he calls a “state-of-the-art contact center,” not a phone center he said, because it will be operated remotely. Sixty people are expected to come on board to answer phone calls, emails, texts, and a chat service.
“We’re excited about improving service delivery and having the resources to do it. Claimants deserve it,” said Westby.
However, Westby said that the center won’t be up and running until July.
“I think this needs to be immediate,” said Darrell Brock.
Brock, a Norwalk electrician who works on live events such as music festivals, concerts, and the Olympics, said as the country reopens his financial future is uncertain.
“My industry is going to be one of the last industries to get started,” he pointed out.
He has also applied for unemployment benefits since he was first laid off. He said his emails and countless phone calls to the DOL have gone unanswered.
“I’ve never been able to get my information in, I have never heard if a human being read my original letter, I’ve never heard if a human being has looked at my appeal. I’ve never heard anything,” said Brock.
Brock said he hasn’t taken home a regular paycheck in months.
“It’s very stressful,” he admitted.
Gig workers like Brock were the last group able to file for pandemic assistance. The system for the self-employed didn’t go online until May 7.
Brock believes he was owed more than the minimum $198 weekly payment he's received, but said the system crashed over and over when he tried to upload his salary information.
“That was almost three weeks ago and I’ve heard nothing,” said Brock. “I tried going on their Facebook page, I tried calling them, no luck there.”
“Normally, we would test this out for probably three months before we would ever want to go live with it. We never had any test time,” said Dante Bartolomeo, DOL's deputy commissioner.
When asked what percentage of the issues were user error and what percentage were bugs or problems in the system, Bartolomeo said she didn’t believe there were any bugs in the system. She said there have been countless user errors, from transposed social security and bank account numbers to incomplete applications.
“This is brand new. It’s brand new to us, it’s brand new to them. We’re building it as we fly it,” she added.
She advised that people not use auto-fill to fill out the applications and to verify their email address. She said some of the errors have come from people using their phones instead of their computers to fill out forms and accidentally typing the wrong letter or number on their phone’s small keyboard.
“For them to come out and say there’s not a problem with the system, it’s all user error, I felt that was tone deaf,” said Brock.
Brock pointed to posts on the DOL’s Facebook page which is filled with comments from unemployed workers sharing stories of unresolved claims.
“There are people who are saying that for nine weeks they’ve been asking for a review,” said Brock. “Answer people’s pleas for help.”