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After Henry Wheeler got laid off from his security job at sporting stadiums in March at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, his life started to fall apart.

Wheeler, 45, had trouble getting unemployment benefits, couldn’t get help from charity programs and was running out of money for the most important things: his food and medication.

In July, he hit rock bottom.   

“I had a suicidal thought at that moment,” he said. “I was not getting help. I’m not getting things done like I wanted to do. I have bill collectors blowing up my phone,” he said. 

In desperation, he shared his thoughts witha Facebook group where people help each other sort out unemployment questions. Soon after, strangers sent money, $20, $30,  $45, to help him buy insulin and get groceries. 

Wheeler became one of many Hoosiers across the state and country who in the spring, helped the nation set an unprecedented record for the number of people relying on government agencies  for aid. 

As of the start of September, about 164,000 Indiana residents were still receiving state unemployment, which is more than 12 times more than the number that were receiving last year, which was a total of about 13,100 then, according to state data from the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s not counting the hundreds of thousands in Indiana applying for federal pandemic benefits, which are processed through the state. 

About 80% to 85% of unemployment cases are processed within three weeks, but the rest are flagged for further investigation and that can take anywhere from six to more than 10 weeks to resolve, said Joshua Richardson, the chief of staff for the Department of Workforce Development’s commissioner Fred Payne. That leaves tens of thousands of people waiting months for help for any number of reasons, including their employer challenging their eligibility and errors with their applications.

“That gets really hard,” Richardson said. “There are different types of issues. We look to automate things… But you’ve got to balance speed with accuracy.” 

In the absence of timely unemployment payments in Indiana, one Facebook group has turned into a lifeline for some, offering emergency cash help for everything from food to medication to diapers. The group, called “Indiana Unemployment Peer to Peer Information,” also serves as a place where people can get some answers about the unemployment process. 

At the start of the pandemic, the state had to increase staff by ten folds to answer calls about unemployment. But unlike the 40 people who were trained and skilled in fielding unemployment application questions before the pandemic, the newly hired 400 workers were learning as they went along and started work by using a frequently asked questions guide, said Richardson. The lack of familiarity with the process has caused confusion, prompting people on both sides of the application process to make mistakes that delay the distribution of benefits.

While training has improved the situation, many still fall short. 

“We haven’t gotten those folks there,” Richardson said. “We’re getting closer.”

And that’s when Mary Mccloskey, an optician in New Albany, stepped in.  

“I read the entire CARES Act when it got published,” she said. “I’m a big nerd.”

So she started a Facebook group to help her friends and family who were asking her questions about their eligibility. Soon, the group, which evolved into a lifeline for Wheeler and others, ballooned to hundreds and now nearly 8,000 Indiana residents and workers.

Mccloseky was part of a group that pooled money for Wheeler. She also sent money to someone else in the group to buy blood pressure medicine. 

Just a few weeks back, a member sent someone money to buy diapers for her toddler, she said. 

“That does make me feel good. I was able to give these people a place to do that,” she said. 

Daryle Crawley, an Indianapolis resident who works at the Dollar Tree, also sent Wheeler money. He first joined the group to get information for his own unemployment claims, but stayed after his questions were answered so he could help others. 

Wheeler said he’s grateful that a group of people he’s never met helped him get through some of his darkest days. 

Mccloskey and Crawley are trying to figure out how they can help people financially on a larger scale. At the same time, they’re also lobbying Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration to better handle these problems. 

In late August, three administrators of the group wrote a letter to Holcomb, outlining the desperation and despair they’ve witnessed on social media from people losing their cars and homes and getting disconnected from their utilities while they waited for state benefits to kick in.

“Hoosiers continue to feel the effects of the mandatory state-wide shut down which you ordered on March 16, 2020; yet feel abandoned by your optimism,” the letter stated. 

They also outline problems with the call center set up to answer questions, including examples of employees giving out bad information that led to the loss of benefits. They have not heard from Holcomb. 

Some, though, have been fortunate enough to recover. 

Eventually, Wheeler got his benefits, including back pay.

“They were a blessing in my life,” he said. “They did not have to help me.”

And like Crawley, he’s sticking around on the Facebook page to help others. 

Contact IndyStar business reporter Binghui Huang at 317-385-1595 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Bhuang2012

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