Imagine if you will a virtual storefront dedicated solely to aiding those who enter. But upon entry you find yourself in an endless bureaucratic maze, bounced from one government functionary’s desk to another – never getting a definitive answer, never receiving the promised aid, never escaping and instead living in an eternal state of bewilderment, frustration and uncertainty. You have just entered the “DOL Twilight Zone.”
As prologue, ten years ago, I married and my wife relocated from Texas to join me here. Since that time, she has mostly worked as an independent contractor for engineering/architectural firms. However, with the pandemic, her work, like that of millions of others, dried up. She first thought herself ineligible for unemployment benefits because of her independent contractor status, so no application was made. However, we were informed earlier this year that she might still be eligible for federal benefits.
An online search indicated this was true, but it appeared she had first to apply for and be denied state benefits because of her contractor status before being able to apply for federal benefits.
This is where our journey truly began. The only way to access Connecticut unemployment compensation benefits is now online. So, in early March she made an online application. We then received an e-mail stating we would receive a determination in ten days. No notice was received. We made an online inquiry. The first response was an email stating that more information was needed, and we would be receiving the request in the mail. No request arrived. Then we received a voicemail message from someone identifying herself as “Stephanie” who said my wife could not apply for benefits because she had an active claim in another state.
Stephanie provided a call-back number which I used only to find a pre-recorded choice of providing a callback number or waiting on the phone for at least an hour. Callback numbers were left. No calls were received. Efforts were made to remain on hold, but regardless how long I remained on the line I was told wait time would be at least an hour.
Meanwhile, we were receiving e-mails as reminders to apply for each week’s benefits (?). It appears our efforts resulted in a new claim. Later attempts to file for weekly benefits were met with our being shut out of the system. We received no further communication.
Frustrated and unable to contact someone to speak with, we sought some sort of formal appeal. There appears to be no reference to this on the main site. After an online search I was able to find a separate site. We filed an appeal in late March which met with complete silence.
Based upon the foregoing we contacted the offices of our state legislators in mid-April. Liaisons from both contacted us. Shortly thereafter we heard from two separate Department of Labor “field auditors.” Fearing they might work at cross purposes we put them in touch with each other. They decided which auditor would decide the case and he quickly confirmed my wife’s independent contractor status. So, the file was to be further “processed.”
Again, we heard nothing more.
Weeks later we received by mail a one-page notice informing my wife she may be eligible for a federal Pandemic Unemployment Act claim. Thinking that perhaps this notice replaced the one we were told to expect, we went online only to discover there was no active claim and we could not move forward to file a federal PUA claim. A subsequent follow-up to both auditors resulted in a response from one stating that further “processing” was handled by another department, and we should be patient. Again, we heard nothing more.
We next heard from our representative’s liaison who made inquiries on our behalf. She received the same “the claim is being processed” canned answers. After several more weeks of this, the liaison informed us the DOL claimed a determination had been made in early May (not true) and that we should now be able to file a PUA claim. We immediately got online only to find the same response that there was no active claim.
Thinking perhaps a new claim was needed, we tried to apply, but were kicked out of the system. After informing the liaison of what happened she relayed back that the latest response from the DOL was that we may need to file a new claim and start the process all over again.
And once again we are left waiting for action – any action – by the DOL over four months after our first efforts to begin to apply for federal PUA benefits.
Nevertheless, undaunted we filed yet another claim. Miracle of miracles it was quickly processed and we were able to get basic PUA benefits.
However, we had since received information that perhaps the benefits would be retroactive. Even if not fully retroactive, the long delays caused by the DOL placed my wife in a position of not being able to enjoy the full length of the PUA program since it runs out in early September. And just like that, back into the maze.
The same game of e-mails and phone tag continues with no final resolution. Whether we are entitled to any retroactive payments remains – for us—unanswered. So, while it appears that there is no happy ending in sight, I suppose the Twilight Zone episodes rarely ended happily anyway.
This narrative applies only to our situation. But it sets one to thinking. I hardly believe that the DOL’s callousness is reserved only for us. In all likelihood there are others – probably many others – who have received similar treatment and simply given up the effort out of frustration. The end result is that the DOL seems more focused on reducing its workload by nonfeasance and making bureaucratic excuses rather than providing the services legislatively mandated at both the state and federal level – and may well indicate a pattern of the state stymying citizens access to a federally legislated benefit.
A conspiracy theory? More likely bureaucratic lethargy that even elected officials cannot overcome.
There is, however, one silver lining. I teach business management classes at a local college. In a few weeks I will begin using these events as a case study in my management sciences class – as a glowing example of failure.
Richard Bennett lives in Norwich.