A lone empty shopping cart sits abandoned at The Mall at Barnes Crossing as the facility was closed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. More than 36,000 Mississippians have filed for unemployment in the past two weeks as a result of businesses closing.

AMORY Until Thursday, Renee Vineyard was getting nowhere with filing her unemployment claim with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

For a week, she was unable to get anybody on the phone, and going online offered no help, either.

“I called 100 times a day,” she said. “We were told to call this 888 number, and if you managed to get through, I’d wait four hours but you still couldn’t talk to anybody. You couldn’t get an answer.”

Vineyard’s frustrations are shared by thousands across the state who have been trying to file jobless claims with MDES. The state agency has been overwhelmed, and even extending hours and adding staff hasn’t seemed to help much.

And if filers get through, they’re eligible to receive a maximum of $235 from the state. The federal stimulus package will add another $600.

But getting registered is the first step, and exasperated workers like Vineyard wonder why state officials can’t do more to help.

After being laid off from Capital Bedding on March 23, she started calling MDES with no luck. She went to the WIN Job Center in Amory, but it had stopped seeing individuals in person. Meanwhile, many other unemployed people also gathered at the office, hoping to get some help or information.

Vineyard was lucky enough to pick up a packet of information that was by the front door of the center, filled it out and put it back under the door.

She kept calling and going online with MDES, getting nowhere. Vineyard said she would call early in the morning before 8 a.m., and later in the evening – around 8:30 p.m. – and none of the calls went through.

But then she got an email Thursday that the information she submitted in that packet was accepted and her unemployment claim was going through.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.

The number of unemployment claims in Mississippi jumped 461 percent last week to 30,946. A week earlier, 5,519 claims were submitted. Across the U.S. last week, 6.6 million people filed for unemployment, doubling the previous week; that means some 10 million people have gone unemployed in two weeks in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s an unprecedented level of layoffs, surpassing the Great Recession job losses of 2008-09 of nearly some 8 million.

Experts think that number will only continue to climb as unemployment offices can’t keep up with the filings, and the numbers will spill over into the following weeks. Some believe unemployment will reach 15 percent or more, with 20 million unemployed.

Brandy Statum lost her job of six years at Images Fabric Designs on Friday, and was able to file her unemployment claim.

Or so she thought.

“I went back and it said it failed,” she said. “I tried to call back, but the 601 number and the 888 number they said to call weren’t working.”

Statum is hoping to land another job soon so she doesn’t have to rely on unemployment.

“Thankfully, my husband works at HomeStretch Furniture, while he’s not working, is getting paid,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like for a family to have both sources of income stopped.”

MDES on its website says, “We are currently experiencing longer wait times for our contact centers,” and says online claims may be filed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But that means nothing if a person can’t get online.

“I don’t understand why they don’t have more people helping us,” Vineyard said. “People have questions they need answered.”

Twitter: @dennisseid

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