Cornell Brunson was standing on Fifth Avenue in Downtown, looking up at Gov. Tom Wolf’s regional office.
There was a crowd in front of him, listening as he told his story of trying to navigate the state’s unemployment system.
Mr. Brunson, 74, from the West End, started quietly — speaking into the microphone about how many people have been “wandering from one place to another” as they look for answers about their unemployment benefits. But it didn’t take long before he was shouting.
“Give me my money,” he yelled.
The chant resonated with the crowd and Mr. Brunson was met with thunderous applause.
His experience matched what so many in the crowd were experiencing.
In March 2021, more than a year after losing his job and a year of (mostly) collecting unemployment benefits that arrived on time and consistently, Mr. Brunson suddenly found himself with no income, no benefits and no clue how to fix it.
“It’s just wandering around and you don’t know what to do. No water, no nothing and you’re about to collapse,” he said.
Laid off from his job working as a therapist in the county jail.
Started working part time over Zoom. Began collecting partial unemployment benefits.
Reached his BYE, or benefits year-end date. His benefits stopped for more than a month while he tried to understand what that meant and what he had to do next.
Benefits began again and came consistently.
Mr. Brunson and his wife both became infected with COVID-19 in November and he found himself asking, why me? When the benefits stopped coming, he couldn’t stop asking the same question.
“When they cut my benefits off, I was again like, why me? What did I do? I didn’t do anything. Why is this going on?” he said.
Eventually, through his own research, Mr. Brunson learned he had reached his BYE date. But he only associated that word with something he said to his wife as he was getting ready to leave the house.
The state had an entirely different meaning for it — one that he tracked down after weeks of late-night research. In the unemployment system, a BYE date stands for benefit year-end, or exactly one year from when an individual applied for unemployment compensation.
Normally, that date marks the end of unemployment compensation. But new programs set up amid the pandemic meant individuals could continue to collect jobless benefits after their BYE date but through different programs.
Mr. Brunson said he spent hours reading material he tracked down on the state’s website and watching YouTube videos that helped explain how to navigate the system, what all those acronyms meant and what he needed to do once he reached his BYE date.
The resources weren’t easy to find or understand, he said. He often went to bed frustrated with the material and then woke up at 4 a.m., with fresh eyes, to try to understand it once more.
“You have to go to school,” he said. “It’s really going to school. And then you have to take notes. I had to write down notes or try to print off the pages … so I could refer back to the pages when I went back.
“It took me a month — a month — to finally put it together to make some sense to me,” Mr. Brunson said. “Ask me what I did now? I don’t even know but I got it done.”
He described his experience with the unemployment system as “embarrassing and shameful.”
“Talking about it was not one of my favorite conversations,” he said. “It was all a nightmare.”
Mr. Brunson had never been laid off before.
He had been working for 30 years as a therapist, focused on mental health and substance abuse. His most recent role was working in the Allegheny County Jail.
He lost his job last March in part because the jail was not allowing any outside visitors. That didn’t last all year but the company he worked for didn’t have the resources to bring him back on or set him up for virtual visits.
He collected unemployment benefits but the payments weren’t always enough to provide for him and his family. His wife ended up going back to work part time.
“Even though she embraced me and supported me, it was still just … telling your wife that you won’t be getting any income. I don’t know if I got words for that,” Mr. Brunson said.
Even if it had been safe enough to travel to see his children, he wouldn’t be able to afford it. It was hard to not be able to send a few dollars to his grandkids, he said.
In January, he went back to work part time, holding therapy sessions over Zoom. But five months later, there has been no indication whether his company will add more hours to his schedule. He is considering looking for a new job but likes his company and his role and doesn’t want to leave if he can help it.
By May, Mr. Brunson was still collecting partial unemployment benefits and, once he figured out what the BYE date meant and what he had to do as a result, the payments came quickly and consistently.
The whole experience has left him on edge.
He is fearful of the unknown, of what might happen if government officials decide to cut unemployment benefits or shorten the number of weeks available, of the things he doesn’t have any control over.
“They could stop coming at any time,” he said. “My story is no different [from other workers.] But I would have never believed that I would be going through this.”