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Science & Technology

'A Renaissance For Labor Issues': Social Media Help People To Apply For Unemployment

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's Thursday, the day of the week the government takes count of the number of people who have filed for unemployment. And each Thursday since the pandemic began, the numbers released have been almost incomprehensible - a total of 42.6 million people. That tide is slowing a bit. But still, the numbers out today show another 1.9 million people filed for unemployment last week. But a backlog of claims means there are still many who are waiting for their first check. Emily Siner reports from member station WPLN in Nashville that people are trying everything they can think of to get answers.

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Yvette Williams was panicking. It was six weeks after her last day as a part-time medical worker in Memphis.

YVETTE WILLIAMS: Remind you - I'm a single mother of two kids. I have no income coming in.

SINER: Williams had filed for unemployment at the end of March, but now it felt like the system had failed her. She hadn't gotten a response on her claim, and the state customer service line, which she called every morning, would cut her off after 10 minutes on hold.

WILLIAMS: Seemed like I spent half of my day calling, calling, calling.

SINER: Finally, Williams turned to Twitter, and she realized lots of other people were having the same issue. Some recommended contacting lawmakers. Sure enough, when she got through to a state senator's office in Nashville, her unemployment was approved a couple days later. She says if she hadn't done that...

WILLIAMS: I think I still would be on hold, waiting.

SINER: In Tennessee and many other states, the sheer demand for unemployment is backing up every step of the system. So instead, social media has filled in the gap as a kind of grassroots unemployment help line. In a bustling Facebook group called TN Unemployment Nightmares, people commiserate about issues and swap advice. They also share phone numbers or emails that seem to lead to success, which is why some lawmakers now say they're getting overloaded, too. State Representative John Ray Clemmons of Nashville says he's getting dozens of pleas for help every day.

JOHN RAY CLEMMONS: Because they have yet to receive so much as a response from the state of Tennessee - or a substantive response, rather. And they've not received a single paycheck.

SINER: But one unexpected outcome of this frustration, says University of Tennessee law professor Sherley Cruz, is that a lot of people now really care about programs designed to help workers. She describes this moment as a renaissance for labor issues and hopes the interest in improving the system will continue after the pandemic.

SHERLEY CRUZ: I think the more that we can have this be an issue that we're talking about constantly and not just when there's a high incidence of unemployment, that that's when we'll see change.

SINER: The unemployment office in Tennessee says the system isn't broken, it's just overloaded. So for some workers, they may end up returning to a job before they receive their first unemployment benefits.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.