‘Feisty Heifer’ helps Georgians still waiting for unemployment pay

Sabrina Hogan of metro Atlanta uses her Twitter account under the name "Feisty Heifer" to help Georgians trying to get long-delayed unemployment benefits. She helps them get on a list to reach staffers at the Georgia Department of Labor. SPECIAL

Combined ShapeCaption
Sabrina Hogan of metro Atlanta uses her Twitter account under the name "Feisty Heifer" to help Georgians trying to get long-delayed unemployment benefits. She helps them get on a list to reach staffers at the Georgia Department of Labor. SPECIAL

Some desperate, unemployed Georgians have struggled for months to reach a real person at the state’s overwhelmed Department of Labor. They want to find out why their benefits haven’t been paid.

But now there’s a back door to the department. And Sabrina Hogan has the key.

She isn’t a politician or a staffer for the governor. She’s a 52-year-old former Uber driver who goes by the name Feisty Heifer on Twitter, has a better-than-average understanding of the unemployment system and is “just very direct” according to Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

Those attributes have allowed a private citizen to become a central player in an unorthodox workaround that has helped hundreds of unemployed Georgians finally get to talk with Labor Department staffers.

As the coronavirus pandemic raged, the deluge of unemployment claims quickly outstripped Georgia’s labor department’s abilities. The DOL says it now has made payments to 91% of the 1.2 million claims it has judged legitimate. But that leaves at least 100,000 other people still waiting. Some Georgians have gone months without any unemployment payments or explanations, despite repeated calls, emails and social media messages

Hogan, from Austell, stopped driving for Uber early in the pandemic, alarmed by the risks of COVID-19. She applied for unemployment benefits in late March. When she tired of waiting, she started confronting DOL and Butler on Twitter.

“I bugged him every freakin’ day,” she said. “I’m a pretty feisty girl.”

Eventually, Butler responded, and Hogan got her benefits. But she didn’t let up. She began using her new connection with the commissioner to push him to help hundreds of strangers who found her through Twitter or word of mouth.

Her Twitter profile — with the handle Feisty Heifer, a term of endearment used by her husband — says she is “a feisty voice for change. NO DM’s from perverts are welcome. Unemployment benefit guidance offered for those who request it.”

At first, she just sent Butler direct messages about people who had fallen through the cracks, and he had his staff look into their cases. But Butler was already being swarmed day and night by many others on social media. So the labor commissioner created a list allowing Hogan to directly add people to be contacted his staff.

Hogan said it consumes her 18 hours a day. Her work is all unpaid and unofficial.

“She has a big heart for people,” Butler said. “I commend her. It has been a big help to me.”

The commissioner said he has hundreds of staffers who answer the public’s queries. About 50 of them are specifically assigned to answer phone calls, which now average about 35,000 a day. The labor department’s 42 career centers scattered around the state remain staffed but are temporarily closed to public visits.

There are other lists of frustrated unemployed workers that the DOL compiles or receives. Some involve people who contacted legislators and business associations.

Butler said several dozen people on social media regularly connect him with others who need assistance. “We don’t turn down any kind of help,” he said. But the others don’t come close to the number of referrals that Hogan sends along, he added.

He discourages people from sharing sensitive information with people outside his department, including Hogan.

Scott Briscoe fell far behind on rent while waiting for unemployment benefits. When he called the DOL, the phone just rang.

Then he saw something on Twitter from the Feisty Heifer and messaged her. She told him to give the DOL a few more weeks. Eventually, she put him on the list.

“I have no idea who this person is, who she is connected with,” Briscoe recalled. “Then I got a call about a week later from somebody in the commissioner’s office.”

On his original application, he hadn’t used his full name, matching other government records. He had to send in a couple pieces of proof about his identity. Two days later, his unemployment money was in his bank account.

“She had no reason to help me, but she did. My family is in a much different situation because of it,” Briscoe said.

Another person tweeted, “This list is a gift! After 3 mos of silence I got a call back thanks to @SabrinaHogan and I was ready with my questions.”

Still, getting on the call back list is no guarantee benefits will arrive quickly or at all. Once a person is on it, the wait for a call could be three weeks or more, Hogan said. Right now, nearly 200 people are on it.

“I’m just a gatekeeper to the phone list,” she said.

She only works through Twitter. She asks a couple main questions: Are you certifying with the DOL every week? Did you file with the DOL more than six weeks ago? If the answer to both is yes, she puts them on the list.

She has a general idea of when those on the list are about to get their calls returned by the state. “I tell these people: ‘Glue your phone to your hand.” She shows little patience for people who aren’t prepared for the state’s calls or who give her a hard time as she gives up her free time to try to help them.

She knows the demands will increase as she becomes more widely known. So will the heartache.

“The stories are getting worse and worse with people down on their luck.”

One woman she helped had 64 cents left in her bank account. She paid the power bill of a single father of four whose electricity was cut off for nonpayment after his unemployment benefits were delayed.

Hogan isn’t new to the unemployment system. She’s filed for benefits three times in the last 20 years. And she previously worked at a company that represented employers fighting unemployment claims filed by former workers.

She said she hadn’t realized how much the DOL had to scramble to write code and put in a new system after Congress abruptly expanded unemployment benefits to gig workers.

“I’m not a real cheerleader for the Department of Labor, but I’m also able to see it from their perspective,” she said.

She said the DOL should fix its system, installing a better one or perhaps privatizing some operations, so that people can reach the department and know problems with claims are being addressed.

Butler said no private contractor would be willing to step in for what the department could pay. But he said he has been looking into vendors to supply a system to communicate better with people facing problems with their claims.

Meanwhile, Hogan expects a continuing river of unemployed workers who need answers: “The list is never going to end.”

Sabrina Hogan’s tips for people seeking Georgia unemployment benefits:

1. Write down your PIN number from the Georgia Department of Labor and keep it in a safe place.

2. Don’t share your personal credentials and PIN with anyone on social media. Your PIN must be kept confidential to guard against theft and to protect your privacy.

3. Try to obtain a separation notice from your employer stating the reason for your separation.

4. Request your payments weekly by certifying your claim at the proper link from the DOL website. Use either the UI link or the PUA link, but not both.

5. Don’t submit duplicate claim applications unless instructed to do so by the GDOL.

6. In most cases, you should receive from GDOL two determinations: a UI benefits determination and a claim examiner determination. The first will tell you if you have enough wages to establish a valid claim. If you have enough wages to establish a valid claim, you will receive a second determination informing you if benefits are approved or denied.

Hogan created a website with additional information about Georgia unemployment claims: https://sabrinahogan.com/