In less than three weeks, more than 100,000 Granite Staters have filed as many new unemployment claims as in the previous three years combined, testing some state workers’ endurance.
Under pressure to process fresh jobless claims, some workers at the Department of Employment Security have worked as many as 20 days straight while worried about catching the coronavirus. Some donned face masks and cried in their Concord office.
“There have been many tearful days,” said one worker, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation. Three co-workers said their crying was related to concern over getting sick, the worker said.
Nearly 57,000 people filed initial jobless claims during a two-week stretch ending March 28.
Last week's new jobless claims will represent a new weekly record, according to the state. That total will be released by the federal government Thursday.
New claims could top 40,000 last week depending on whether figures for any previous weeks get revised upward.
The 100,000 total covers from March 17, when Gov. Chris Sununu loosened rules for qualifying for benefits, through April 4.
“We paid 22,000 benefit checks just this morning” worth more than $6 million, Employment Security Deputy Commissioner Richard Lavers told the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“I think New Hampshire has done quite well,” he said. “We’re paying people faster than the rest of the country. We’re going to continue to have some problems because of that incredible volume on the system.”
Claimants should receive the first $600 federal weekly supplement in next week’s checks, which will have two such payments to cover a previous week. People filing new claims today should receive their first checks in about eight days.
“All the staff here are doing a tremendous job,” said Employment Security Commissioner George Copadis.
One worker is worried about co-workers not respecting social distancing guidelines to stay 6 feet apart.
“People walking right up to your cubicle, lean over me and talk to my face, touch my computer,” the worker said. “A big part of it is the anxiety of being surrounded by a ton of people.”
Some New Hampshire Employment Security workers would prefer to work from home, where the chance of getting sick from the coronavirus would be less, the worker said.
A second worker who also did not want to be identified had similar concerns: “Some people are afraid to come to work because they don’t want to get infected.”
A union representative said that’s a common issue among state workers.
“That’s a complaint we have heard across agencies — people not being able to have work-from-home capacity are pointing out the severe concerns about putting their health unnecessarily at risk,” said Melissa Moriarty, communications manager for SEA/SEIU Local 1984.
Processing unemployment claims is not work that can easily be done remotely, Lavers said.
“It’s not as simple as everyone getting on Zoom and delivering some classes or delivering some instruction,” Lavers said. “Where we’ve tested outside, it’s been unreliable and unproductive.”
The department has received more than 70,000 phone calls in recent weeks. The department has 260 workers statewide and has borrowed workers from other state agencies to work in its call center.
Anybody “uncomfortable with working in the office” can use vacation or sick time, which can go into the negative, Lavers said. The department is having cleaning crews wipe down the office more often, and supervisors are trying to accommodate more employees working at home, he said.
“It just doesn’t work for everybody,” he said. “We can’t send all of our staff to their homes and expect to process that level of claims.”
Lavers said it was possible some workers volunteered to work up to 20 days straight, though one worker disputed when overtime was declared mandatory.
Workers are now required to work 54 hours a week, including working overtime every other weekday as well as two weekend days in every two-week pay period. They normally work 37.5 hours a week, so the first 2.5 hours would be paid at straight time with overtime paid beyond 40 hours, he said.
“It’s definitely stressful work that they’re doing,” Lavers said.