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Barrett Says State's Unemployment System Still 'Completely Overwhelmed'
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:57AM / Tuesday, March 31, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — State Rep. John Barrett III on Monday morning said the commonwealth's unemployment system does not yet have the capacity to meet demand generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And later Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said a move aimed to help the newly unemployed may only make that problem worse.
Barrett said that last week that Massachusetts received 19,000 calls from residents making unemployment claims, and the system received another 33,000 calls the next day.
The jobless rate had been stable at less than 3 percent for six months but between March 15 and 21, claims soared by 1,904 percent as 147,995 initial claims were filed. 
Although the state has an online portal for those filing claims, many residents continue to call the agency to resolve issues.
"When you try to deal with this, you think it's all set, and then these bigger problems arise," Barrett said. "People don't have their PIN number or their password and want to know how they can get it. All of these issues have cropped up … and the administration right now is overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed by it.
"To make things even worse, when you were hit with the problem [after the 2008 financial crisis], when we had the recession or whatever you want to call it, the difference was people could go into a career center. … Now, all the career centers are closed down. And they eliminated the call centers. Everything is done online."
The Baker administration repeatedly has talked about adding capacity of personnel to take and return phone calls -- while working remotely as the commonwealth closes offices to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in the commonwealth.
But Barrett continues to hear from constituents who are frustrated in their attempts to file claims.
"But I do think it will pass," he said. "I'm very hopeful in the next week or so it will straighten out. And it will have to."
A short time after Barrett talked over unemployment and other issues with, Gov. Baker at his daily press briefing talked about how the unemployment provisions of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act potentially could bog down the system.
The good news with CARES is that it extends unemployment benefits to people not currently in the system, Baker said, mentioning the self-employed, people doing contract work and those whose primary income is reported on a federal 1099-MISC form. CARES also extends the number of weeks that claimants can receive unemployment benefits.
"The not so good news is that states are still waiting on guidance on how to implement and start distributing funds," Baker said.
"Right now, it's critical that people seeking these [new] benefits not apply under the state's current platform. If you attempt to apply for them now, you won't be able to get through the system. … And it may create a risk of a traffic jam for others who do qualify and can access existing benefits."
Baker said that as soon as the commonwealth receives guidance from the federal government, it will post it at
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that unemployment nationwide jumped 3.3 million, up 3 million from the week before and well above the last reported high for one week, 695,000 in October 1982.
Problems with the state's unemployment system are among the many issues where Barrett, who held an interim post as executive director of the county career center, is trying to lend one-on-one assistance to constituents during the COVID-19 crisis.
"The frustrating part of the job is sometimes you can't get things done whether it's unemployment benefits or hospital needs or EMT needs. And don't forget the people who are working in the stores, too.
"The best thing I've seen the last five or six days or even less than that is people are now taking it seriously when they see the numbers in the area."
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