Bayou State Blues: Members Slammed While Processing Record Unemployment Claims

AFSCME members working for the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC) are hopping busy these days fulfilling a critical mission. They are helping Louisianans survive as the Bayou State’s economy buckles under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

The LWC says it received nearly 98,000 calls in the week ending March 28 from workers filing for unemployment benefits. In contrast, the agency received nearly 1,700 calls for the week ending March 20, 2019. While the entire state has been hit hard, New Orleans’ tourism-based economy has been eviscerated and Louisiana’s largest city isn’t expected to recover until at least June.

Mona Keels, a member of Local 421 (Council 17) is one of the many tireless AFSCME members on the front lines, working in overdrive to give out-of-work Louisianans a fighting chance of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads.

An adjudicator at the LWC’s Division of Unemployment Insurance/Benefits Analysis Team (UI/BAT), she’s putting in 11-hour days while teleworking from home in Baton Rouge. And she’s doing more than just adjudicating claims.

“We are doing it all: answering customer phone calls, filing and processing claims and answering general questions,” Keels says. “Everything has tripled, even quadrupled. None of us could have imagine how bad it was going to be. … The phone essentially never stops ringing from the time we start working from home at 8 in the morning and end our day around 7 at night.”

Calls started to spike approximately the first week of March, initially from New Orleans residents, and now from across Louisiana. Usually, each call takes about 15-20 minutes to complete – if the caller responds to all the questions quickly and concisely. But many calls are taking longer due to the system overload of users, according to Keels.

A good customer service representative, Keels says, “is patient, caring and has the ability to get the job done without offending the person calling even while they tell their stories.”

Her advice to Louisiana residents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic is simple: “If you have worked and earned wages, file your Unemployment Insurance claim. The staff at the LWC is diligently working to answer all calls in a timely manner, file new claims and answer all questions.”

Louisiana is hardly alone in seeing record spikes in the number of state residents losing jobs and seeking unemployment benefits to stay afloat. Last week, U.S. workers filed an unprecedented 6.6 million jobless claims, an indication of just how much the coronavirus pandemic has shredded the world’s largest economy.

Gwendolyn Hughes, a Local 421 member who works for the LWC in Shreveport, was on leave when she was asked to work remotely for a couple of days last month to process surging jobless claims.

“People are really suffering in Louisiana. Some of [the callers] were sick; some were quarantined,” said Hughes, who’s now back on leave.

She said the call volume hasn’t been as high since Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana 15 years ago – maybe not even then.

“That’s the only other time I’ve seen it like this – where the phone never stopped ringing,” Hughes said. “I think this supersedes even Katrina calls.”