Kristi Hertz had no reason to think she would lose her job.
The economy was strong, state and national jobless rates were at or near all-time lows, and wages were climbing.
But the COVID-19 pandemic brought a swift, brutal end to a way of life for Hertz and millions of other Americans.
“There are so many people looking for work all at once this time,” said the 54-year-old marketing professional from St. Louis Park. “What if I never find a job? How will I live? I never thought my life would be like this. It’s like a bad dream.”
Hertz is one of more than 482,000 Minnesotans who have scrambled to apply for unemployment benefits since March 16. More than 400,000 of those applications are new accounts, a stark indicator of the devastating toll inflicted on Minnesota’s economy by the pandemic and a stay-at-home order that forced thousands of businesses across the state to close.
The demand for benefits has placed unprecedented strain on Minnesota’s unemployment insurance program. Hertz and other applicants report long wait times on the phone to speak to someone about their benefits.
Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, which handles unemployment benefits, says it has shifted staff and is hiring an additional 20 people to handle an unprecedented volume of applications. State officials say 90% of payments for eligible applicants have been processed in one to two weeks, and that Minnesota was one of the first states to begin issuing the extra $600 weekly payments from the federal government. On Wednesday, DEED announced a 13-week extension of benefits for the 8,000 Minnesotans who exhausted or will soon exhaust their unemployment benefits.
For those still waiting, the state is counseling them to be patient. “If you hang up after waiting 20 minutes, you’ll be at the back of the line when you call back,” said Blake Chaffee, deputy commissioner for DEED. “Please be patient. We are talking to more than 7,000 people per day.”
Jim Pantaleo, 59, of Edina, has had a job since he was a teenager and is used to solving his problems on his own. He has been a bartender for nearly 30 years, sometimes working weeks in a row and long hours without complaint.
So when the stay-at-home order closed restaurants and bars, it left Pantaleo in the unfamiliar position of needing help.
For a month, he has tried to apply to receive unemployment benefits, but his status is still pending. During Pantaleo’s latest call over his claim Monday, he waited on hold for more than an hour but learned little about why his application had not been approved. As a last resort, Pantaleo has reached out to the offices of Rep. Dean Phillips and the governor for help, because his monthly expenses have started to pile up.
“We are in a bit of an emergency time,” Pantaleo said. “It would be like the person who is a diabetic needs insulin and you have to wait until the test results get back in to prove he’s diabetic.”
Pantaleo, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian, tries to keep positive, but with his personal financial situation quickly becoming more dire, “it’s pretty heavy duty.” Chaffee said the reasons for delays in approving applications are numerous. In normal times, some — such as getting information from the federal government — are easy to solve.
But these are not normal times. More than 20 million Americans have filed jobless claims in the last four weeks, so other states are experiencing the same volumes and asking for the same types of information.
“In a sense, we’re competing with them,” Chaffee said.
Patrick Feehan of Winona is waiting to hear back from the state because he doesn’t know what benefits he will receive, and he needs to go another route if it is not the state unemployment system.
Feehan quit his job on his doctor’s advice. He is 65 and has heart ailments and high blood pressure, putting him at high risk for developing a more severe case of COVID-19.
“I worked on a medical supply assembly line that didn’t allow for six-foot distancing, other workers were touching the unit, and no one’s temperature was being taken,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep until my doctor finally got back to me. I’m overwhelmed not knowing if I qualify for unemployment or short-term disability.”
The uncertainty has him scrambling for options. He’s applied for a $1,000 grant for veterans hurt by COVID-19. And he’s considering activating Social Security benefits.
“That will hopefully bail me out, but it’s not exactly enough,” he said. He is considering selling his trailer home and moving closer into town where he wouldn’t need a car.
Hertz had been unemployed before, at the tail end of the last economic downturn. She navigated the system for jobless claims and then tackled the job market, finding a position in marketing. So she thought she was savvy enough to figure out what to do next.
Instead, she feels overwhelmed. The state estimates her jobless benefit will be $492 a week, about half of what she was making. The $1,200 federal stimulus payment she received this week helps.
“I will have to move if that’s all I get and I can’t get help with health care,” she said. “Without insurance my prescriptions are more than $1,000 a month.”
Already, though, she is not finding many affordable housing options even among studio apartments — and she’s put aside her apprehension about asking for help because she doesn’t know when the jobs picture will improve or when.
“When I applied for unemployment 10 years ago, I was too proud to ask for more assistance than just unemployment,” Hertz said. “This time I’ve applied for medical assistance, food assistance and cash assistance.”