People don’t make headlines after going to the beach and not seeing a shark, or eating at a local fast food joint and not getting food poisoning. Our everyday lives are machines that rely on a myriad of cogs to function as expected, most of which don’t get noticed until they fail to do so.
It’s been phrased a thousand different ways, but the fact remains the same: much of one’s life is determined by how they respond when things do not happen as expected. In fact, perhaps the only thing more valuable than stability and predictability is the capacity to adapt when you have neither. But even the most adaptable people have a fail-safe, something to protect them in exceptionally troubling times. So, what happens when the fail-safe fails? I, along with many other newly unemployed Georgians, am finding this out the hard way.
Life was good in pre-COVID-19 times, back in the days when the coronavirus seemed more like an overused meme than a looming threat. As a student putting myself through college, I tried to make the most of my opportunities. Two days a week, I was on campus, taking classes in my third year of pursuing a mechanical engineering degree. On the other three, I was commuting to Atlanta to intern at an automotive company, where I planned to continue working through the summer. A full-night’s sleep was rare, and my 17-year-old Camry certainly didn’t appreciate the 360 miles every week, but knowing I was able to pay my bills while gaining practical experience made it well worth it.
COVID-19 hit, and the rest is history. You don’t need another commercial — complete with the phrase “we’re all in this together” and accompanied by a piano — to remind you what has happened.
In early April, I lost my job. Prospective employers were closing down as fast as I could fill out their applications. Rent, being annoyingly resilient, was closing down for nobody.
Quickly, I realized unemployment benefits were my best shot at staying afloat. Shortly after applying, I began receiving weekly payments, and with them, some peace of mind. The fail-safe was working. For now.
After three weeks, the payments stopped, and the Department of Labor’s website wouldn’t allow me to make any more claims. I tried calling the department’s Athens office a few times with no success. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was understandable that they would be a little behind while processing an exponentially larger-than-usual number of claims.
What I didn’t envision was me sitting here today, writing this, having yet to receive a single response. Six weeks of sending emails, attempting phone calls and leaving more messages than I can count have left me helpless and clueless. I even managed to get a hold of the federal DOL office, which directed me straight back to the unreachable Athens office.
In a pandemic with no end in sight, this absence of communication is unnerving to say the least. Still, the stakes of my situation pale in comparison to the people who need money to provide for their families and loved ones. A quick scroll through comments on the Georgia DOL’s Twitter account reveals thousands of Georgians who are having issues similar to mine, if not worse. Many have yet to receive even one payment after qualifying for unemployment nearly four months ago. The one constant is the lack of sufficient explanation or response from the department.
Nobody could have prepared for all of this, but we’ve seen countless businesses and organizations adapt to the situation and sustain at least some level of operation. When millions of Americans’ lives could become dependent on one system at any given time, that system needs to be built to function properly in the harshest of conditions, and to expect the unexpected. COVID-19 set the stage for the DOL to do just that, and the stage proved to be too big.