DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. -- Alton Tisdale, 59, has been trying to get his unemployment benefits from the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) for the last four months, ever since he became one of the more than one million Virginians left jobless in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"The work got slow, and I was like the last to get [hired] there," Tisdale said. "So, I'd be the first to leave. I got laid off right after November 14th."
For the last 20 years, Tisdale, a man who prefers working to talking, has been a brick mason, who most recently worked for Boschen based in Ashland. As new construction over the last year slowed to a trickle, he said he had a feeling he might lose his steady paycheck.
But while he had a sense that demand for his services was drying up, what he wasn't prepared for was the impossibility of getting someone to explain why he wasn't qualified for benefits from the VEC.
"I went to the unemployment office and I couldn't get through after I filed a claim," said Tisdale. "They said I had I an outstanding issue. But I could never find out what it was. I tried and tried, and they said it had been processed, and so I filed every week, but I never received any benefit."
As the months wore on, Tisdale was eventually forced to move in with his elderly mother. And borrow money from an old friend.
But about that old friend -- it turns out someone else was trying to get through to the VEC on Tisdale's behalf. And trying really, really hard.
Years ago, Tisdale did extensive brick masonry work at Alan Mullis' Dinwiddie County home. Mullis, a former Marine reservist who retired from Sears after a 35-year career as a manager, says he took an immediate liking to Tisdale.
"You just have to know Alton Tisdale," Mullis said. "He's a really great guy. He works hard."
So when Tisdale fell on hard times, it was natural, Mullis said, that he would step in to try to find help for him.
"I got involved with the VEC trying to get his benefits and I couldn't get anyone to answer," said Mullis. "I took him to the office. They wouldn't come to the door. I had my daughter, who is a University of Tennessee graduate, write a letter to the VEC. They have not responded to that. And I saw Alton struggling with VEC each week trying to make his claims, so my wife even got on the phone. We got on a computer, trying to get someone to give us an answer as to why Alton was not getting his benefits."
But it was to no avail. And a source of deep frustration and concern for Mullis, who already had enough weighing heavily on his mind. More on that in a moment.
"Alton is not a guy that abused the system, and when he came to me for help, I knew he genuinely needed help," Mullis said. "And I once I started trying to get help for him, I got so frustrated with the system."
As what he calls a last resort, Mullis contacted CBS 6 on Tisdale's behalf, and I happened to be the one who called Mullis back.
"I’m so happy that you took my call to help out," Mullis said after he answered, sounding out of breath. "He's been a friend to me for a long time."
As I heard what sounded like machines in the background, I asked Mullis if it was a good time to talk, and he said it was, that he was in the middle of a chemotherapy treatment, so he had time.
"Well, I've been diagnosed with a disease called MDS," Mullis explained. "Some people call it blood cancer."
Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) is a form of bone marrow cancer that could lead to leukemia. But Mullis didn't want to talk about that: all he wanted to know was, could I help get through to the VEC on Tisdale's behalf?
Early Friday afternoon, I contacted the spokesperson at the VEC with details about Tisdale's case.
About an hour later, I got a brief one-sentence email: "His issue was resolved this morning."
I called Tisdale to let him know. He said he was cautiously excited but had heard not anything himself. He later said that late Friday afternoon, an employee at the VEC called him to tell him he would be getting his benefits, all the way back to November 14.
"After you called me, a commissioner from the unemployment office called and said it had been resolved," Tisdale said. ''I’ll be receiving my benefits on Monday."
That bit of good news had a double effect: Tisdale's good friend and benefactor felt as much joy as he did. "Thank God you responded to me, and, and helped Alton," Mullis said. "And I am so grateful, because he is a person that pays into the system, he doesn't try to abuse the system. These bricklayers, they work a while and they get laid off, and that's the way the work is."
Mullis will now focus on the bigger challenge at hand: trying to get his health back.
Tisdale said his next steps are pretty clear.
"Pay my bills and as soon as the weather gets right, find a job, and go back to work," Tisdale said. "Hopefully."