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On Tuesday, March 17, Karen Ricketts woke up unemployed. She had lost her job working the register at The Root Cafe the day before. She had liked working there, talking to regulars and being a part of a team that was community minded. Her one goal that Tuesday was to file for unemployment, but the website had already crashed and she couldn’t get through.   

Here’s how she handled her frustration at first: “I ended up going through all the drawers in my room and started organizing,” Ricketts said. “You want something you can control. And you can control the amount of clutter you have in your house so that was what I did for a couple days. That was my coping mechanism.”

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One week later, Leif Hassell was in the same position. On March 23, he’d been laid off after three years installing fire and security alarms for a local company. He’d just finished filling out his time card for the week before when management called all employees into a meeting and told them there wasn’t anything left for them to do.  

Ricketts and Hassell are two of many thousands of Arkansans who lost their jobs as the COVID-19 disease outbreak shut down businesses for the time being.

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“I’m doing some job searches online, but I’m not holding out much hope of finding anything with everyone under self-quarantine,” Hassell said. “So I started working on my garden. I’ve got potatoes, garlic, some beans and radishes. I’m going to try to put some corn in. I have a lot of herbs.” 

A record number of Arkansans find themselves in the same shoes. According to Governor Hutchinson, 9,000 Arkansans filed for unemployment the same week Ricketts did. On March 31, the governor estimated 30,000 claims had been filed.

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He has urged those filing by phone and online to be patient. 

“This volume of claims is unprecedented in our history. We’re processing them as quickly as we can. We will get to it. We’re trying to upgrade the systems to make the online system work better and more efficiently,” Hutchinson said at a March 25 press conference.

Ricketts and Hassell were able to obtain unemployment benefits. Some haven’t been so lucky, experiencing trouble with the state’s website or spending time on hold.  

A spokeswoman for the Department of Workforce Services, the agency that handles unemployment claims, said the state had “absolutely not” ever experienced such a high volume of filings. 

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“All staff in the Arkansas Workforce Centers have been moved to working on unemployment insurance claims only,” Zoe Calkins said in an email. “They are working overtime and weekends, but we are not hiring new staff members.”

Calkins said the Workforce Services agency is also looking at extending the hours Arkansans can access the website known as EZARC (Easy Arkansas Claims) at ezarc.adws.arkansas.gov. 

“We are working to make the EZARC website available for individuals to file claims from 6 a.m.-6 p.m on weekends in addition to weekdays,” Cakins wrote. “This will require testing to ensure the system [works], and [that] our staff can handle processing the additional claims.”

COVID-19 has hit every sector of the economy, causing a chain reaction felt everywhere, even rural Perry County, where Travis McElroy runs the record label Thick Syrup from his home. McElroy is also the manager at the Little Rock music venue Rev Room. He said he’ll be filing an unemployment claim soon. Thick Syrup has ceased operations and, since no one can go see live music anymore, his job at the Rev Room is gone, too.

“All the record stores have quit ordering, and I’ve had distributors that have shut down.” he said. “I don’t know if any of these mom and pop stores are going to make it. Some of the people that I know have borrowed money to make payroll for their record stores. It’s just hit everyone in a short time period. It’s hurt a lot of people.” 

Gerard Matthews
TURNING TO GARDENING: Leif Hassell, after losing his job.

Arkansas is one of the stingiest states in the country when it comes to unemployment benefits.  In 2011 lawmakers reduced the amount of time workers can draw benefits from 26 weeks to 25. In 2015 it was cut to 20. In 2017 it was lowered even further, down to 16 weeks. In 2015 legislation also changed how the amount of one’s benefit was calculated. Instead of using the highest quarterly income as a wage base, legislators decided to use the average income of the last four quarters. So if you’re a seasonal worker or you work in a job like construction or hospitality, where you might not work 52 weeks out of the year, this amounted to a significant reduction in benefits. 

“This should highlight some bad policy decisions,” said Jessica Akers Hughes, secretary treasurer of the Arkansas American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “I think it’s one of those things we need to be aware of and we need to address. It’s not on the forefront right now because we want to make sure people’s immediate needs are being taken care of first. But the underlying issue is the cuts we have made to unemployment.”

Calkins said in an email that the 16-week cutoff is still in effect but will be extended by the relief package that recently passed in Congress.  

“With the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, unemployed individuals who exhaust their state-funded benefits (16 weeks) will receive an additional 13 weeks of Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits. This brings the total to 29 weeks.”

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Governor Hutchinson has removed some hurdles for those seeking unemployment benefits. People no longer have to wait a week after losing their job to file for unemployment. The governor also directed the Department of Commerce to waive a work-search requirement to receive benefits, and removed the in-person filing requirement, instead encouraging people to file claims online or over the phone to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19.

For those without work, the shock of the situation — how quickly it happened — and the level of uncertainty about the future have been the toughest things to get used to. 

“I think my frustration comes from just being caught off guard,” Ricketts said. “I do not have a second source of income. I’ve got all my eggs in this basket. That’s what’s really hard, is not having enough warning and just the realization that this is very real.”

Jack Sundell, who owns The Root, said he’s had to reduce staff and significantly reduce the hours of those he’s been able to keep on the payroll. 

“We’re just devastated to have to lose anyone,” he said. “We’re down from a staff of about 35 to about half that. Our goal is to get through this however we can and reopen and rehire everyone.”

McElroy said he’s just hoping things can get back to some kind of normal. 

“What I hope is that we get to go back to work,” he said. “I hope we get to reschedule everything. But I really don’t know what’s going to happen because I look around and I see no one listening to what the CDC and the doctors say we need to do. At least in these small towns, it’s really bad. They’re not taking it seriously whatsoever.”

Sundell said if you told him this would be happening as little as a month ago, he wouldn’t have believed it. 

“Not only was this unforeseen, it was unforeseeable,” he said.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.