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Tucsonans seeking unemployment often face system crashes, failed calls
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Tucsonans seeking unemployment often face system crashes, failed calls

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

As the number of Arizona residents needing unemployment and other assistance continues to grow due to the COVID-19 crisis, the systems in place to help are not holding up.

Since Monday, the state’s Department of Economic Security has been having ongoing problems that prevent clients from calling DES customer service centers, said Brett Bezio, deputy press secretary for DES. The DES service contractor, AZNET, has been reporting service interruptions to DES, he said, and they are trying to address the problems.

“We worked with our partners at the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA) to handle the unprecedented surge in calls to our agency,” he wrote in an email exchange with the Arizona Daily Star.

“Both ADOA and DES have been making system and staffing adjustments to manage this significant increase in volume without disrupting the system, including additional changes this morning. We continue to monitor performance and ensure clients are able to receive the support they need.”

Bezio encouraged people to look online for updates and information at des.az.gov. Things seemed to be working a bit smoother Wednesday afternoon, said Tasya Peterson, communications director for the DES, but with the volume of calls and computer activity there’s no guarantee, she said.

Over 88,000 people in Arizona applied for unemployment last week, a tremendous jump from the last time there was a surge in requests back in July 2009, following the Great Recession.

“The technology our state has in place is outdated and insufficient,” said Andrés Cano, a Tucson Democrat and representative with Legislative District 3.

He said he is closely following how the state is doing with unemployment claims, and asked applicants to be patient.

“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “It’s the worst thing, as an elected official, to hear from those who are hurting. We should have been more prepared for this.”

One example: A few people interviewed by the Arizona Daily Star said, in applying for unemployment, they were required to fax over forms and many don’t have fax machines available in their homes anymore, or never did.

Consider the experience of Tucson resident Jeff Grubbs. He had to figure out what “essential” business — meaning one that’s still open — offers faxing services. Luckily, he thought of UPS.

“They were able to help me out and it wasn’t their first rodeo of the day,” Grubbs wrote on a social media post. “Between the two fax numbers provided on the (DES) form, it took 20 minutes to get it to go through.”

The staff at the store were extremely patient, he said, adding he threw $5 in the tip jar to thank them.

And now he waits.

For Judy Ostermeyer, the problem has been trying to reach someone on the phone about a glitch in her application. She keeps getting stalled on her unemployment claim because she had to include where she’d applied for work that week. The thing is, she’s not looking.

Ostermeyer is temporarily out of a job because the kitchen at the Arizona Inn is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to return when things return to normal and just needs the help to get her through this time.

But what should have been an easy problem to solve turned into a timely process of calling repeatedly as she tried to reach a person who could help.

Busy signals.

Calls dropping.

Speed-dialing the number over and over again.

On Wednesday, Ostermeyer speed-dialed DES over and over again and finally got through. Then she was on hold for over an hour.

“The woman who helped me said there were about 400 in the queue (at about 9:15 a.m.),” she said.

What was the answer? Write “COVID 19” in spaces where it asks about job inquires so the system thinks she looked for work.

Tom Prezelski said applying for unemployment was seamless and easy. He was sent a form in the mail to fill out and, as instructed, he faxed it back.

But now, when he calls to check on the status of his application, he can’t get through.

He said it’s understandable to some extent, considering the circumstances.

“The governor got some praise for loosening up the requirements for unemployment in the face of this crisis, but these seem pretty meaningless when no one can get in touch with the office,” said Prezelski, a Democratic member of the Arizona House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009 for the 29th District.

“The phone either rings and rings or you get a message that the number is non-working,” he said. “Emails go unanswered as well.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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