Her job interview was made up of three questions: Did she have any call center experience? Was she bilingual? Could she start in two weeks? No, no, yes. That was good enough for Irene Hild to land a job as one of roughly 4,000 contractors hired to staff the FEMA COVID-19 Funeral Assistance line, which helps Americans who are looking to get FEMA funds to pay for the funeral costs of loved ones killed by the coronavirus. The 23-year-old had been working as a barista, but the $11.40 an hour she made at the call center was almost double her former rate. But when Hannah Dreier of the Washington Post starts shadowing her, it's Irene's last week at the job she'd worked for eight months. "She liked the idea of helping bereaved families," writes Dreier. "But several thousand tearful, frustrated, confused callers later, she was done. She just wanted to get through her final days without stumbling and making some grieving stranger's life even harder."
The difficulty of the job is twofold: The callers come to her in the throes of grief and financial stress, and the 70 pages of scripts and instructions that are supposed to guide her response come from FEMA's standard disaster registration process and are full of deleted sections and additions. For instance, the direction it gives for ending a call reads: "READ the instructions on the screen to the applicant, but DO NOT READ the second sentence. READ the following additional statement at the end: 'My sincere condolences to you and your family during this time.'" One call Irene fielded was from a man who'd been waiting seven months to be reimbursed for his father's funeral expenses. The father had died in April 2020, and his death certificate listed COVID symptoms, but not COVID itself. She advised the caller on the clarification he would need to get from the nursing home to be eligible. Dreier follows him on his largely futile quest to make that happen. (Read the full story.)