Mass. Made It Easier To Claim Unemployment, But Some Workers Are Still Left Out

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The number of people filing for unemployment insurance is skyrocketing in Massachusetts, with nearly 20,000 people filing on Monday alone. The surge prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to sign emergency legislation Wednesday to waive the standard one-week wait period to collect unemployment.

"This important change will ensure that we can get much needed unemployment assistance to workers who are impacted by COVID-19," Baker said at his daily press briefing. "Our administration is now ramping up operations to make sure that we can can respond to the significant spike in unemployment claims."

Congress also took steps to address the new demand for unemployment money, passing a bipartisan coronavirus bill that includes $1 billion for states.

Monday saw nearly as many new unemployment applications (19,844) as the entire month of February (25,400).

Among those applicants was Matt O’Keefe, a general manager at the restaurant Buttonwood in Newton Highlands. He said his bosses are paying some workers to close up shop this week, but next week he’ll have to rely on unemployment benefits equal to about 40% of his earnings.

"It's great to have something," he said, "but I definitely am still losing a lot of money."

"Supporting a family and budgeting based on salaries ... to not have that anymore is of course very stressful.”

Yet O’Keefe considers himself among the lucky ones. He said his family will tighten its belt and continue to pay the bills. But for workers who don’t qualify for unemployment, the future is far less certain. Some employees of nonprofits and religious organizations are among groups that aren’t eligible, as well as independent consultants.

Corinn Williams heads the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford, a nonprofit that supports small businesses and immigrants in the city’s North End. She said undocumented workers won’t be able to collect unemployment, even if they pay into the program with each paycheck. And many of the temp workers who populate New Bedford's economy will also be unable to collect.

"Industries that have their their ups and downs, like the fishing industry ... people who are working in recycling companies, construction, painting, all those kinds of industries are going to ... have a hard impact on a community like New Bedford," Williams said.

On top of waiving the one-week wait requirement, the state is suspending requirements to attend seminars at state career centers, excusing missed deadlines for causes related to the virus, and holding appeal hearings by phone. The state also published a COVID-19 unemployment handbook with instructions for how to file.

People ordered to be quarantined, or who leave employment due to "reasonable risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member," can also qualify for benefits, according to the state.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance is calling on people to file using the state's online portal.

Correction: This story was revised to reflect the fact that some, not all, nonprofit workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on March 18, 2020.

This segment aired on March 18, 2020.


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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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