Idled workers chase elusive benefits as they await return

  • James Wickline, who worked at Sunset Grill and Pizza in Amherst until he was laid off recently, has been unable to access jobless benefits. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • James Wickline, who worked at Sunset Grill and Pizza in Amherst until he was laid off recently, has been unable to access jobless benefits. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Matt Haskins, proprietor of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, uses hand sanitizer on a visit to the closed Boltwood Walk business Friday. Haskins shut down in March for the first time in his 12 years of running the shop. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Haskins, proprietor of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, visits the closed Boltwood Walk business Friday. Haskins shut down in March for the first time in his 12 years of running the shop. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Haskins, proprietor of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, visits the closed Boltwood Walk business Friday. Haskins shut down in March for the first time in his 12 years of running the shop. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Haskins, proprietor of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, holds a sign he’s made for his customers Friday. Haskins had to close down in March for the first time in his 12 years of doing business. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2020 7:31:43 PM

As the COVID-19 pandemic approached in March, Matt Haskins attempted to keep his customers safe at Matt’s Barber Shop in downtown Amherst, moving to a schedule of appointments to promote social distancing and ramping up the use of disinfectants.

“We tried to hang in the game as long as we could,” Haskins said.

In the end, the precautions were not enough to keep the business he’s operated since 2008 going, as he was forced to shut down when Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to close as a way of curtailing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Now, while hoping to be able to reopen at some point, Haskins is turning to both state and federal programs to maintain his income — though so far he has been unable to begin collecting any money.

Haskins has turned to the CARES Act, the federally funded COVID-19 relief package aimed at supporting sole proprietors, independent contractors and gig economy workers who are unemployed, but the state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance won’t be turning that program on until late April.

Haskins also applied for an Economic Disaster Injury Loan through the state, but both the conventional and advanced loan, designed to bring money to people more quickly, have not panned out for him.

“I’ve talked to a lot of small business owners, and everybody’s up against the ropes already financially,” Haskins said.

“I’m in purgatory,” he said. “It’s really difficult to guess when money will come in.”

James Wickline, previously laid off from his job at Sunset Grill & Pizza in Amherst, had returned to work before the coronavirus hit, but the restaurant at the edge of the University of Massachusetts has since closed.

Wickline immediately filed for unemployment, but has been unable to collect any money.

“I went to apply knowing my benefits were exhausted, but was told to apply because regardless, there would be money coming in,” Wickline said. “I’m worried about it. Am I going to get anything?”

The situations both Haskins and Wickline facing are likely not dissimilar from the experience of many of the other 470,000 Massachusetts employees, and close to 17 million people across the country, who have filed unemployment claims over the past three weeks.

With a strain on the system that has forced the Department of Unemployment Assistance to ramp up staffing and launch online webinars, just a little more than half of the state’s jobless, or around 250,000, have begun receiving benefits to which they are entitled.

Some laid-off workers have begun turning to the legislators who represent local communities, where they can get help in being guided through the system.

Understanding that the pandemic is as much a health crisis as it is an “economic gut punch,” as she puts it, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said her office is intensely focused on responding to calls for help.

“This is a high-stakes moment,” Comerford said.

For the majority of people who need to file for unemployment benefits, the online process on the state website should be fairly straightforward, with the department posting an explanation there that most claims are processed within 21 to 28 days.

Even so, Comerford acknowledged that glitches and delays happen.

“We get calls from people who should have had a successful application, but haven’t yet been able to access it,” Comerford said.

These can be caused by any number of issues, from an error in the application form to a previous claim being filed that is preventing transition to the new claim.

“It requires sometimes one-on-one advocacy,” Comerford said.

Mesanwhile, Comerford said she has spoken to Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rosalin Acosta about the urgency of rolling out the CARES Act to support those who are part of the creative and gig economy. In fact, her office is keeping a list of these self-employed people and will reach out directly when the portal is open.

Like Comerford, state Rep. Mindy Domb said she is helping people in her district that includes Amherst, Pelham and Precinct 1 in Granby, particularly those who in the past have not been able to get jobless benefits.

“Many of the folks I have heard from are self-employed, freelancers, consultants, and are often not eligible for unemployment insurance,” Domb said.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton said she’s also helping unemployed people access benefits. “We help about 15 to 20 constituents a day with this,” Sabadosa said.

The state Senate, Comerford said, recently passed an expanded piece of unemployment legislation that increases the number of weeks people can get unemployment, removes the two-child dependent cap and includes a provision that takes pressure off employers. Comerford said she and her colleagues felt compelled to do more than the CARES Act in trying to benefit small businesses.

At the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center, Executive Director Teri Anderson said the front desk and unemployment assistance staff are assisting about 100 callers per day.

“Many people in our region don’t have access to the internet or a computer and need assistance applying online, which is currently the only way to apply at this time until the state gets their virtual call center operational,” Anderson said.

Many business owners, she said, hope that the crisis will subside and that some level of normalcy will return.

“Anecdotally, I can share that many of the employers I have spoken with who have furloughed staff have done so on a temporary basis with the intention of reopening or rehiring as soon as possible,” Anderson said.

Despite the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, many businesses are currently hiring, Anderson said, including in manufacturing, social services, health care, retail, banking, agriculture and schools.

The hope for those who are unemployed and waiting to resume working is that the economy doesn’t start up too late.

“All I’m doing is sitting here waiting,” Wickline said. “I just want to get back to my job.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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