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COVID-19

What it’s like to run a state unemployment office right now

Andie Corban and Kai Ryssdal Apr 17, 2020
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Workers at a pandemic flu service call center in London in 2009. Richard Pohle/Getty Images
COVID-19

What it’s like to run a state unemployment office right now

Andie Corban and Kai Ryssdal Apr 17, 2020
Workers at a pandemic flu service call center in London in 2009. Richard Pohle/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Twenty-two million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in the past month, putting a sudden strain on state offices that handle the program. In Texas, the country’s second-biggest state economy, more than 1 million people have filed. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Ed Serna, executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission, which oversees the state’s unemployment benefits.

“This is the sixth state agency that I’ve worked at in Texas state government in about 34 years,” Serna said. “Nothing has been as challenging, as nerve-wracking, as stressful as this.”

The Texas Workforce Commission, like other unemployment offices across the country, has added staff and expanded hours. Even with three new call centers operating, Serna said getting through to the office is still a challenge.

“We know we can help people once they get to us,” Serna said. “And our frustration is, the volume just continues to increase. Yesterday we received over 2 million calls, and we couldn’t answer them all, obviously, because that’s about 61 calls a second.”

Click the audio player above to hear the interview.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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