High demand for unemployment claims outpaces state’s ability to keep up

MDES officials say they’ve more than doubled the agency’s phone lines, yet some still wait days to file

High demand for unemployment claims outpaces state’s ability to keep up

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Mississippi’s unemployment claims are nearly six times higher than they were earlier this month, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor, which reflect layoffs across the state in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Over the last month or so, we’ve seen, on average about 6,000 to 7,000 claims coming in on a weekly basis, and just in the last three or four days, we’ve already experienced that," said Timothy Rush, the director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s Office of Reemployment Assistance.

But we may not be seeing the whole picture.

Over the last week, several Mississippians have posted on social media and sent emails to our newsroom, telling us they couldn’t get through to file their unemployment claims.

Governor Tate Reeves even acknowledged the demand on Twitter.

“We are working hard to deal with the massive influx and take care of our people,” Reeves said Thursday.

One of the issues seems to be the website itself.

When someone files a claim, they have to create an account if they’ve never filed before.

The site then emails the person a verification code to confirm the filing.

Several workers said they never got an email with that verification code, meaning their claim can’t be submitted for processing.

Rush said he hasn’t heard about that particular problem, but encourages people to email MDES and tell them the issues.

They’ll even backdate claims to make sure those Mississippians don’t lose coverage, he said.

“Over 2,000 emails have come in since we’ve posted information on the web page, so they’re contacting us. In turn, we’ve secured cellular phones for our staff because our landlines are already full of customers,” Rush said. “So we’re using the cellular phones for designated staff to call those individuals back who are experiencing problems.”

The overloaded landlines seem to be the biggest problem for many.

Those who can’t file online end up calling.

Comments from those on the MDES Facebook page from some claim that their wait times on hold last several hours.

Rush said he’s frustrated with the process, too, citing upgrades the agency has already made to the phone system, but the demand still outpaces their efforts.

“We increased our capacity for phone lines from 400 individual lines up to 900 lines, and because we don’t have 900 employees to answer those individual lines, those individuals are on hold," Rush said. "

When someone hears a busy signal, Rush said, that means 900 Mississippians are either getting helped or waiting for help.

In the meantime, agency officials suggest people go to their local WIN Job centers to get assistance, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, those offices are open by appointment only, and those appointments can only be made over the phone as well.

Rush said they’ve also considered the possibility of outsourcing for more call center workers from other state agencies, but nothing has materialized yet.

Agency employees have also been seeing a steady stream of people showing up at MDES’ Echelon Parkway headquarters for help.

“Some have come by, and I’ve given instructions to our staff that we’re not going to turn anybody away," Rush said.

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