PUP organizer Ted Kelly being interviewed on the Washington Post

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One call at a time, he listens as an economic crisis unfolds because of the coronavirus. He can’t help.

By Jose A. Del Real April 8, 2020 at 5:35 p.m. EDT

Read article on The Washington Post webpage HERE

Ted Kelly had been holed up in his small studio apartment in Philadelphia for two weeks, and he was weary with bad news. Every few minutes, his phone buzzed with more calls from recently laid-off workers whose lives had been capsized by the novel coronavirus.

There were a few things he knew before even looking at a number.

For one, he was almost certainly not who they were trying to reach. He was a community organizer for a local nonprofit that advocated for workers; the callers were probably looking for the state’s unemployment office.

And he knew there would ultimately be very little he could do to help them.

He picked up anyway.

On the other end: an out-of-work bartender who first started losing tips, then hours, and eventually her job entirely. A gig musician’s wife, unsure whether the family would qualify for unemployment. A mother of two who worked stadium concessions and suddenly had no more work and no more money.

No, Kelly explained over and over, he was not with the unemployment office at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

No, he did not even work for the state government.

No, he could not access any case files.

Each day now, dozens of calls were puncturing the isolated quiet of Kelly’s dimly lit studio, where bright fabrics and bookshelves-turned-partitions crowded inward like a hug. The calls — hundredsa week, he estimated — were runoff from the surge of distress happening beyond the walls of his apartment.

By early April, more than 1.1 million new unemployment claims had been filed in Pennsylvania alone as a result of the rapid and surreal national economic shutdown caused by the virus, according to data provided by the Pennsylvania unemployment office. This second pandemic, one of mass layoffs across the country, has hit the state especially hard. And in turn, it exposed a threadbare unemployment administration that had struggled to keep up with claims even when unemployment was at 4 or 5 percent.

The logjam had been years in the making. The state has laid off hundreds of administrative staff and shuttered many offices and call centers in recent years — a result of budget shortfalls caused by flat unemployment funding from the federal government and partisan gridlock in the state legislature.

Now, even with $38 million in new federal funds to bolster its unemployment administration — part of $1 billion in emergency funding made available nationwide by covid-19 legislation in Washington — the state would have to mend old deficiencies while coping with the new crisis.

“The basic problem is that the feds haven’t been sufficiently generous in providing administrative monies,” said Wayne Vroman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. “State legislatures have to provide it in some way or another. Pennsylvania has really been seriously hurt, I would say, by the failure of the state to continue providing adequate supplemental funding.”

Many new applicants have found themselves disoriented in a system with little human contact and no one to answer their questions.

And Kelly found himself a receptacle for Philadelphia’s pain.

That so many people were calling him was an accident of timing, bureaucracy and algorithms. Just a few weeks ago, Kelly, 30, was still settling into a new job as an organizer at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project — PUP for short — a nonprofit that advocates for the city’s out-of-work residents. It had the distinction of coming up first when someone typed “Philadelphia unemployment phone number” into Google, which a lot of people had been doing amid the greatest economic crisis since the Great Recession.

When social distancing measures began in Philadelphia, PUP shut down its downtown office and forwarded the calls to Kelly’s cellphone.

Then came the mass layoffs.

Without access to their case files, Kelly could not do much for the people calling, but he could answer questions that came up as users filled out their benefits applications for the first time. He could explain what each eligibility category meant. He could give some context for why the system was so backed up.

It was something.

One of those callers was Shannon Darcy, 31, who was laid off on March 15 from her job as a bartender and server at Condesa, an upscale Mexican restaurant near Rittenhouse Square. Darcy, someone who always liked to have a plan, promptly applied for unemployment benefits and food stamps. She felt gutted; one month ago, she had expected to be just weeks away from getting married. Now the wedding was delayed and the money from the celebration had instead become a financial lifeline.

At least, she thought, unemployment compensation could soften the financial blow from losing a steady job.

But when it came time to file her biweekly claim, she immediately ran into trouble, Darcy said. She had woken up at 6 a.m. to file online ahead of the crowd, but when she opened her computer, the Web portal kept crashing. Thirty-six hours and hundreds of phone calls later, she decided to call the Pennsylvania governor’s office as a Hail Mary.A woman there gave her the number for a local organization that might be able to provide some advice.

She dialed; Kelly picked up the phone.

Darcy thought he sounded as frustrated with the government as she was, which brought comfort; she felt heard for the first time after weeks of growing panic.

Kelly gave her a state email address to try, and she began to pass that email and his contact information along to friends in a similar situation.

“It’s very scary that it took one person calling the governor’s office 30 times on Monday to get a phone number of one nonprofit organization that could explain why this is happening,” she saidin an interview. “This is an unacceptable way to have to access information. Instead of the government, we’re relying on a group chat of 25 restaurant industry workers.”

The state government, in a statement, said it was working toimproveresponse times but did not offer any specifics. “We are working quickly to bolster our [unemployment compensation] operations during this unprecedented time, while serving our customers as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said a spokesperson for the state unemployment office.

Not long ago, Kelly might have been on the other end of these calls. Eighteen months before, he had navigated the unemployment system after being laid off from a call center position with Urban Outfitters, the clothing chain. He ended up with a fridge of slowly rotting groceries when his power was shut off because he could not pay the bill.

He had grown up comfortably in a white suburb of Philadelphia. But since graduating from New York University nearly a decade ago in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, he saw friends and family members growing more and more vulnerable despite soaring stock market values. He heard politicians, on the left and the right,offer what he considered lip service to working-class voters while the social safety net was shrinking. That was why he now identified as a communist, he said, though he never mentioned it to callers.

Now,in the wake of the pandemic,he felt like one of the lucky ones, with a job and a sense of purpose. Without realizing it at first, he had become one flicker of humanity in the vast bureaucratic void. He had to keep picking up the phone; without much else in the way of immediate solutions, it felt meaningful “just being able to say a few words of solidarity and to reassure people that it’s not their fault this is happening.”

“There’s already been a massive crisis. People have not been able to get connected with the unemployment compensation office in Pennsylvania since before the pandemic hit. But since the workplace closures started, it’s gotten out of control,” Kelly said. “This is not a system that is set up to care about people.”

Before the pandemic, Kelly and his colleagues had one crucial bit of advice for people who could not get their phone calls answered by the unemployment office: go stand in line at one of the four CareerLink offices in Philadelphia, funded by the state’s American Jobs Center program. In normal times, these offices — which are not run by the unemployment program — were a catchall for some of the state’s neediest, from recently laid-off individuals seeking unemployment compensation to families seeking temporary benefits such as cash assistance.

Each of those offices had a designated phone where people who stood in line were guaranteed that someone would pick up their call. People would stand there for hours waiting for their turn, sometimes lining up in the morning and not leaving until the end of the business day.

Then, like other workplaces, the CareerLink offices closed. The newly unemployed are finding out what others in the system already knew: Withso little human contact, simple problems could quickly turn into devastating setbacks.

Two weeks after she first filed, Darcy received her financial determination letter in the mail. She qualified for $300 a week — less than the maximum because her tips are not considered wages. She tried to sound upbeat when walking through the new math of her life out loud one recent afternoon. She added over and over that she was in a much better position than others.

But she also admitted the numbers didnot easily add up. Her monthly expenses including rent wereabout $2,400 a month, which she made work comfortably when she was employed.

“I went from planning my wedding and being a month away from getting married and wanting to start a family, to not even knowing what’s going to happen a week from now,” she said, pausing and adding that she was not going to let herself get emotional. “Instead, I’m 31 and filing for food stamps. I’ve never had to live like this before. And it’s scary.”

Last Tuesday, when some of her friends received their first unemployment checks, Darcy looked at her bank accounted and realized no money had been deposited.

“What are we supposed to do? Just wait for them to respond to us?” she said Friday.

Uptown, Kelly looked down at his phone and saw he had missed several calls. He took a breath and started calling them back.

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