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'It Never Stopped Ringing': Lessons Learned From Answering COVID-19 Calls For Help

A woman in black shirt sits at a computer
Taynisha Berenguer
Taynisha Berenguer, a Hillsborough County Library employee, answered calls for financial assistance on a special Social Services call line last week.

Last week, Hillsborough County Social Services opened up a special call center, designed to help people who lost their jobs or had their pay cut due to the coronavirus pandemic. The county had $15 million in federal funds to distribute, and eligible callers could get help paying two months of mortgage or rent, plus one month of utilities. The call center ran out of money within four days, and has since closed down.

Calls were answered by public library employees like Taynisha Berenguer, who says even though she’s accustomed to people asking her all kinds of questions in her usual role, answering the Social Services line during the COVID-19 pandemic was quite an education.

"People ask all kinds of things. From... 'This famous person just passed away. Can you tell me everything about this person?' To... 'my phone stopped working. How do I make it work again?' To…. 'There's this book with this red cover. Can you find it for me?' "So we've gotten any question that you can conceivably think of we have been asked to find an answer for that," Berenguer said. 

"We had just started working remotely. I got an email from my manager who informed me that social services is in need of some assistance, and that I was one of the people that they requested assistance from," she said. 

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"This is something that wasn't completely foreign to me. As part of our job duties with Hillsborough County, Library Services staff are expected to assist with emergencies if they arise. I have assisted in the call center with Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Dorian. So I was ready to go. We had a couple of days of training and then Monday, we were on the phones," Berenguer said. 

"When you first open up those phone lines, you have no idea what to expect. Day one, when we answered the phone, what I could hear from citizens was relief. People were very relieved that they were finally able to get through to a live person. And they were relieved that we were offering assistance. There was also a little bit of an undercurrent of fear. A lot of people were never ever in this situation and they just didn't even know how (to cope). There was a lot of, 'What do I do?’

"Monday, I think I took about 50 some calls. It never stopped ringing. I know when we opened up on Tuesday, one of the IT people said there were 800 calls in queue."

"It was definitely an education for me as far as who needed the help. I got everybody from every conceivable field, such as servers at restaurants that I frequented a lot. That was the personal connection. 'Oh, where did you work?' And they would mention a restaurant that I would go to all the time. And I'm like, 'Oh my God, that person was probably my server at some point.' There were people with more white collar jobs,  people in the healthcare field, which really shocked me, because I would just think that, you know, health care fields, everybody would be all hands on deck. There were a lot of people who said, 'I have never had to ask for help in my life. I've never been late on my mortgage. I've never been late on my rent. I've never been late on my bills.''

"It became a little bit more stressful when the money ran out. I think it was Thursday morning when we had a team meeting. And they informed us that we have taken over 5,000 applications and unfortunately, we have to suspend taking new applications. Oh my goodness. Now I am going to have to tell people who are hopeful... that this help is no longer there. But people were just very gracious and very nice when we told them no. They said things like, 'I completely understand. Thanks for offering this.''

"It was for me, just the reality that this is not something that's going to be able to be tied up with a neat bow. This is something that's going to have a lasting impact on every single person. This has just thrown a lot of people into a tailspin." 

This story is produced in partnership with America Amplified, an initiative using community engagement to inform local journalism. It is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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