CONCORD, NH – In response to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, more than 150 New Hampshire guardsmen are assigned to support missions across the Granite State.
The citizen-soldiers and airmen are serving communities on multiple fronts; from alternate care sites and food banks, to the warehouse management of Strategic National Stockpile supplies. The efforts feature astute planning, extensive travel, hard work and heavy lifting.
But it’s a small, centralized mission that’s making an equally positive impact: a call center supported by 19 airmen, tucked away in the basement cafeteria of the state fire academy.
The makeshift center, supervised by New Hampshire Employment Security, has been fielding thousands of claims per day made by people in desperate need of unemployment benefits.
As the unemployment rate rises, calls pour in from citizens checking on pre-existing claims and from those experiencing difficulty applying online.
Senior Airman Connor Martin, a 23-year-old crew chief at Pease Air National Guard Base, has been on state active duty at the center since the mission started April 2.
“Some people just need help applying,” Martin said. “Some people don’t have access to a computer, so we have to do everything for them.”
Martin says fielding these types of calls requires a certain mindset.
“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’s lost her only source of income.”
His approach has resonated with callers.
“The world is a dark place right now, but (Martin) made my day so much brighter,” wrote one satisfied customer in an email to his supervisor. “He was attentive, supportive and so very kind.”
But Martin brings more to the game than empathy. He breaks language barriers with skills gained through a high school exchange program in Belarus. He recounted a recent phone call with a caller named Yuri. Distraught and unemployed, he struggled with the online English forms. Martin recognized his heavy accent immediately and saved the day.
“I asked him ‘Do you speak Russian?’” Martin said. “He was like, ‘Yes! Oh my God! I (expletive) love you!”
Martin isn’t the only all-star airman working the phones. Across from him sits Staff Sgt. Walter Ramos, a 25-year-old crew chief and third-year law student at the University of New Hampshire. Ramos, born and raised in Puerto Rico, speaks Spanish. Callers requesting a Spanish-speaking employee are funneled directly to him.
“I field anywhere from 20-30 calls a day,” Ramos said, who prides himself on being thorough with applicants. “I give them my undivided attention. My main goal is to give every individual caller peace of mind.”
His presence in the call center has helped process hundreds of applications and continues to aid the Spanish-speaking community—some of whom offer Ramos gestures of gratitude in person.
“They want to take me to their town and introduce me to their church and take me out to dinner with my family,” Ramos said.
These personal interactions have left an indelible impression on Ramos, who’s thankful to be making a difference as a member of the guard. He said wouldn’t trade his call-center assignment for any other.
“Right now, there’s people out there building hospitals and delivering supplies, but at the end of the day, we’re all contributing in some way, shape or form,” Ramos said. “We’re helping people get that weekly paycheck.”
With the state under a stay-at-home order until May 4 to prevent the spread of the virus, a high call volume is projected to continue at the fire academy’s small cafeteria call center. Tens of thousands will need help applying for benefits. But the contingent of Pease airmen will be there, working the phones, day and night, until mission’s end.
“We’re trying to help these people get their money,” Martin said. “The war is here right now.”