ARLINGTON, Va. – Army Staff Sgt. Alexandria Tichy said that when she enlisted in the New Hampshire Army National Guard seven years ago, she knew her military career wouldn’t be what many people consider typical.
For much of her career, as a member of the New Hampshire Army Guard’s 39th Army Band, she has wielded a flute rather than a rifle. But she said she always knew she could be called upon to deploy overseas or support disaster response efforts at home.
Recently, she and most of the band were activated in support of the latter. But instead of flood or snowstorm response, she found herself answering phones at an unemployment call center, part of COVID-19 response efforts.
It’s not quite the disaster response efforts she envisioned, but it’s still a vital and important element.
“We were receiving 500 to 600 claims per week,” said Richard Lavers, the deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Employment Security Department (NHESD). “And, in the first week of the crisis, we received nearly 30,000. It’s like a business receiving their entire year’s worth of work orders in a single week.”
How did the New Hampshire National Guard end up as the solution for overwhelmed unemployment call centers?
After the state’s unemployment rate jumped from 3.8% in March to 17.2% in April, according to NHESD figures, the department asked for help from the governor, who turned to the New Hampshire Guard.
The call bank task force was formed in early April with 19 Airmen from the New Hampshire Air National Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing, said Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sean Pinsonneault, 39th Army Band commander, and officer in charge of Guard members at one of the call centers.
The band came on duty two weeks after that. Senior Airman Connor Martin, a crew chief with the 157th ARW, prepped them for the work, describing it as being a tough but worthy cause.
“You’re going to get yelled at,” he said. “People are upset. People are distraught. But you have to understand that there’s a single mom with two kids on the other end of the line who has lost her only source of income.”
Empathy wasn’t the only asset Martin brought to the mission. He recalled an encounter with a caller named Yuri, a native Russian speaker who was distraught over not being able to fully understand the English unemployment forms. Martin, who took part in a high school exchange program in Belarus, recognized the accent immediately.
“I asked him ‘Do you speak Russian?’” Martin said, adding the caller was overjoyed he had found somebody in such a unique position to help.
The original 19 Guard members who pioneered the mission were joined by Pinsonneault, Tichy and the band, and members of the New Hampshire Army Guard’s Company C, 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment (MEDEVAC), and Company A, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment.
They all helped provide relief to the Airmen who were working 12-hour days, seven days a week, but the new task force members had much to learn from the original 19 members.
“Even though they were only two weeks ahead of us in experience, they were light years ahead of us knowing what to expect,” said Pinsonneault.
The new members brought the task force to about 240 members at its peak (the force is now down to about 130). That provided staffing for an additional 140 terminals to help field the nearly 60,000 calls coming into the centers weekly, said Pinsonneault.
At first, none of the Guard members had access to any of the employment security department’s systems, so all they could do was answer phones and assure callers to keep filing their claims online.
“You’re talking to people [who] are destitute,” said Pinsonneault. “They’ve lost their job. They don’t have any money. They’re worried about how they’re going to pay for their kids’ food, their house, their car … and they have no ability to know when their next check is coming in.”
Guard members sought ways to be of more help to the callers and worked with employment department officials to be given “read-only” access to departmental computer systems.
That allowed them to view individual claims and help callers track where they were in the system. That cut down on response time – the Guard members went from being able to field about 300 calls a day to over 1,000, said Pinsonneault.
It also made them feel more useful.
“It gave me more of a sense of accomplishment,” said Tichy. “I didn’t have to run up to a [employment security] supervisor and ask for help. It’s definitely given me a sense of pride to help the residents of New Hampshire. Guiding them through this just feels good.”
Although to some people a group of musicians, crew chiefs or helicopter crews might not seem like a perfect fit for this mission, Pinsonneault thinks just the opposite.
“When they told me the mission was a call center, I thought, ‘This is an ideal mission for the band,’” he said. “We do 60 to 70 concerts for about 50,000 people a year. Our Soldiers are used to talking to normal people as human beings. That’s what this job is. The entire job is creating that little bit of an experience with them.”
But it’s not just the band members’ skills that made the mission a success, he added.
“One of the most crucial benefits of the National Guard is that the Soldiers and Airmen live and work in the communities we are serving,” said Pinsonneault. “The people calling in for assistance are our friends and neighbors. That just adds the extra incentive to accomplish any mission thrown at us to help our neighbors, and this mission really demonstrates our versatility in that capacity.”
The call center task force is one of eight missions New Hampshire National Guard Soldiers and Airmen continue to support in response to COVID -19.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Charles Johnston contributed to this report.