AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Keeping track of the unemployment numbers may feel like counting raindrops in a hurricane, but each person is a new story of job loss in an increasingly bleak economy. Courtney O'Keefe is 45 and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.
COURTNEY O'KEEFE: I have worked as a barista for the last 11 years of my life. When I was let go, it was all very sudden, with no warning and no severance pay, just that's it. No matter what number I pressed for whatever kind of help, it was disconnected. I was hung up on, pretty much.
CHANG: More than 33 million people have signed up for new benefits since the crisis began. And we wanted to see how that was playing out on the ground, so we are joined now by NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Dallas, NPR's Greg Allen in Miami and Jeff Tiberii of WUNC in Raleigh, N.C. Hey to all three of you
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hello.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Hello.
JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: So let's start with Texas. Wade, I understand that more than 2 million workers in your state have applied for unemployment insurance. Is that correct?
GOODWYN: That's right. Like everywhere else in America, things are rough here. Last year, the U.S. became the No. 1 oil producer in the world, largely on the back of Texas shale oil fields. And now there are questions about to what extent these drilling operations would ever come back online. It threatens to undo what had been a robust Texas manufacturing sector. I mean, we're talking hundreds of thousands of jobs lost altogether. And mostly, these were good-paying jobs.
CHANG: And who's eligible for unemployment in Texas?
GOODWYN: Of course, you know, everyone who loses his or her job is eligible. If you're a worker over 65, you're considered at risk and you can apply. Here's a big one. If you can't get child care, you're eligible for unemployment. And that's a lot of Texas workers at the moment. Child care services are generally not happening. If you're medically quarantined, you can get unemployment. But you can't just say, I'm quarantining myself because it's dangerous out there. If your employer says come back, you have to come back unless, as I said before, you're over 65 or medically at risk.
You know, there's a restaurant here in Dallas that I think is going to provide an interesting test case about this. It's an expensive restaurant, and it told its staff they're not going to be allowed to wear masks. And they can like it or lump it. I mean, they'll be fired. So if you're a hostess, a waitress, a bartender, you'll be interacting with patrons day after day. You know, a waiter's got to lean over and breathe on and be breathed on by every customer they serve.
CHANG: Yeah. Absolutely.
GOODWYN: You know, and if they refuse to expose themselves and they are fired, are they going to be eligible for unemployment? That's a good question.
CHANG: OK. So that is Texas. Let's turn to Florida now. Greg, what is the situation like there?
ALLEN: Well, like Texas and really everywhere in the country, there's massive unemployment here. One extra problem we have here is that the system for unemployment compensation, nearly two months into the shutdown now, is best described as still dysfunctional. Less than half of the more than a million people who've submitted claims have gotten any checks at all yet. But that's even an improvement. During the first month of the shutdown through middle of April, out of more than a million claims, just 40,000 people received money. The computer-based system that handles unemployment claims had major issues ever since it was launched seven years ago. And while the economy was good and unemployment was low, the governor, Ron DeSantis and before that, Governor Rick Scott, ignored repeated audits that identified problems with the system and that said that these - there's changes that needed to be fixed here.
CHANG: Well, how does the unemployment system in North Carolina compare to that? Let's bring in Jeff Tiberii now. How is North Carolina managing this crisis?
TIBERII: It's a similar narrative in that there has been just a wave, an unprecedented wave. And the system itself is totally overwhelmed. There have now been close to 1.1 million unemployment applications here. And for context, that is the equivalent of several years' worth of claims in less than two months. So the state has actually added more than a thousand workers to handle all of the calls. And I've talked to a number of people who have been laid off and furloughed. And among what I hear time and time again is just a frustration with wait times, an inability to get some of their questions answered and, you know, again, a frustration in not knowing how long it might take for them to receive money.
CHANG: Greg, I just want to go back to you. What are officials in Florida doing to fix the unemployment system there?
ALLEN: Well, there is recognition now that something needs to be done, clearly, if people aren't getting their money. Governor DeSantis has replaced the person who was leading the unemployment system, and consultants have been brought in to start doing software fixes. They've added 100 new computer servers to the system to try to process some of these claims. But it's still so bad that the state is now allowing people go back to the old days of unemployment compensation and submit paper applications. And so people have been doing that, sending them in through the mail. And the state is scrambling to add call centers and reassigning state employees from other departments to help process all those applications.
But it's all turned into a major problem for Governor DeSantis, who's grilled about it at every press briefing. You know, why aren't people getting their unemployment compensation checks? He's responded by pointing fingers at his predecessor as governor, fellow Republican Rick Scott. DeSantis says he's become convinced as this has gone on that the system was actually designed to fail. He's now asked the state's inspector general to conduct an investigation into how Florida spent nearly $78 million on a system that, from the beginning, never worked.
CHANG: Just to stay on this thread of problematic unemployment systems, Jeff Tiberii, how did North Carolina even end up with so many problems with its state unemployment system?
TIBERII: So I think to understand the picture of where we're at now, it's worth briefly mentioning what has happened in recent years. And North Carolina actually saw its unemployment trust fund go bankrupt following the Great Recession. Then in 2013, Republicans rolled back maximum benefits - 26 weeks down to 12 weeks max benefit and a $535 max benefit down to $350 per week. Now, these are some of the lowest benefits in the country. However, the state has also built up a significant unemployment reserve. And at the start of a pandemic, that reserve was almost $4 billion. So this is providing what - lawmakers are optimistic - is a level of flexibility and a cushion. And they hope that they're going to be able to extend these benefits, as right now, about two-thirds of what has been disbursed has been federal money and not yet from the state coffers.
CHANG: Well, what about Texas, Wade? I mean, we're hearing all these reports from all over the country. Workers are trying to apply for unemployment. They can't get through to call centers. Are you seeing something similar in Texas?
GOODWYN: Yeah, it's an issue here, too. Unemployment insurance, as you can imagine, it's a complex process. You can't just plug any old Joe into a state call center and expect them to know how to do it. I talked to Richard Levy, who's the president of the Texas AFL-CIO. And he told me he's hearing stories from workers who've been trying for weeks, and now they've just given up in frustration.
RICK LEVY: You have a right to it. It's there for you. You have to keep trying. If you can't get through, contact your legislator. let them know you're having a problem. But look. Unemployment is an insurance program. People have been paying premiums to make sure that unemployment insurance would be there when we needed it.
GOODWYN: You know, on top of the state unemployment payment, there's $600 more per person as federal stimulus. If you're eligible, you should go get it.
CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Dallas, NPR's Greg Allen in Miami and Jeff Tiberii of member station WUNC in Raleigh, N.C. Thank you to all three of you.
TIBERII: You're welcome.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
GOODWYN: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.