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'An Endless Loop:' N.H. Unemployment Applicants Report Confusing, Outdated System

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Here’s how Sarah Piedmont, 27, would describe the state’s online system for filing for unemployment benefits.

“It looks like they mashed together, like, five different websites from 2001,” she said.

Piedmont, who works as a restaurant server and is finishing up a degree in mathemathics at Southern New Hampshire University, is temporarily unemployed right now. 

She tried to make her way through the N.H. Employment Security website to file for benefits in late March, but even for someone as comfortable with computers as she is, it was not easy. 

“I could not imagine my own mother trying to use that website,” said Piedmont. “It would be a nightmare.”

[Click here to read more about who now qualifies for unemployment benefits in N.H.]

During the past month, an unprecedented number of people have filed for unemployment benefits in New Hampshire. For many, the process of applying has been slow, confusing and downright frustrating. 

But after some stops and starts, and calls to the state Employment Security offices, Piedmont completed the process and soon started receiving state benefits.

Then earlier this week, she received her first federal unemployment check, an extra $600 directly into her account. 

“Which is awesome,” she said. “So now I can pay back my student loan, a little.”

The normal rules for who can collect unemployment benefits have been waivedduring the pandemic. That’s opened the doors for new types of applicants, including small business owners, such as Sharon Eng.

Eng, who is president of Contract Support Group in Belmont, employs 16 people. When her company’s orders dried up earlier this month, she laid those workers off so they could file for benefits. 

Eng checked in individually, and was happy to report that all 16 were approved for unemployment benefits.

Her own application process, though, hasn’t gone as well.

“I tried applying last Monday, and got stuck in an endless loop,” said Eng.

Phone calls, re-submitting paperwork, more phone calls. Eng believes, after one last phone call this week, that her application is now just awaiting approval. It's been a bit of a pain, but she’s understanding.

“There are a lot of outdated aspects to the system, but the people who are behind it are working super hard to make sure that things get done right, “ she said. 

It’s hard to fathom just how many New Hampshire households have been impacted financially by this crisis and are now seeking benefits for the first time. Researchers at UNH and Dartmouth released survey results last week showing the impact the pandemic is having on New Hampshire residents. The biggest hit, the researchers found, was on younger workers, as well as those with lower levels of education.

“About 50 percent [of New Hampshire households] have experienced a reduction in hours or lost a job. It may not be their only job or their only hours, but yes, 50 percent,” said Dr. Tracy Keirns, assistant director of the UNH Survey Center. UNH, along with Dartmouth.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu outlined just how much money has flowed overall through the unemployment system: 184,000 claims, totalling $88 million in payments.

One challenge for processing all those claims is that the in-person offices are closed right now. So if you don’t have access to the internet or get otherwise stuck, the hotline is your only option. Long hold times are being reported, despite the state ramping up the number of call staff, including utilizing members of the New Hampshire National Guard.

“We have over 200 people in our call centers,” said Sununu. “We’ve made a very concerted effort to upgrade and enhance our ability to talk to folks one on one, walk through that process.” 

But some applicants are finding that even getting through to someone isn’t always the answer.

“The problem is, I get a different person on the phone each week,” said Robert Duryea of Manchester. “I get an experienced person, or I get a person who is just there answering phones, not knowing what they are doing.”

Duryea is an out of work rideshare driver. He’s technically self-employed, a category of worker that prior to the pandemic couldn’t qualify for unemployment support. That restriction has been waived during the pandemic. However, the state’s website isn’t designed to handle the different set of required paperwork.

“They’re not geared for this. It is not their fault, it's nobody’s fault. We are all dealing with this horrible pandemic,” said Duryea. “I think I'll be among those that are just cast in the wind.”

He said he hasn’t received any benefits yet. With nobody hailing rides right now, he’s got no other option than to keep trying.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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