States have differing speeds on jobless pay boost

Some unemployed workers could receive added benefit this week

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Labor Department guidance is putting workers through "significant red tape" to get the additional benefits. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Labor Department guidance is putting workers through "significant red tape" to get the additional benefits. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 6, 2020 at 5:49pm

Some states are moving forward immediately to pay additional unemployment benefits under the latest economic rescue bill, but others are still seeking clarity about Labor Department requirements.

The department released more guidance on Sunday, but several states are implementing updates to computer systems to reflect the new guidance, especially on new types of benefits. Congress not only added a $600 per week unemployment benefit through July, but also expanded the types of workers who are eligible. 

A spokesperson for the New York Department of Labor said workers already receiving unemployment benefits will get the extra $600 as early as this week, but those filing for new benefits likely will have to wait two to three weeks. 

The new Labor Department guidance drew fire on Monday from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who said the policy "forces workers to wade through significant red tape to prove their eligibility."

“While I appreciate that Labor Department staff are working around the clock to implement the program, it’s critical that workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own don’t fall through the cracks," Wyden said. "Congress intended for these workers to be covered. I am following up with Secretary [Eugene] Scalia to discuss these issues as soon as possible.”

Most states said they need more time to make changes to software to accommodate expanded categories of unemployment benefits made available by the law enacted in March. 

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Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said his agency would be able to begin paying the $600 benefit next week but would need more time to modify software to accommodate federal requirements for new categories.

“We are doing everything physically possible to move the benefits quickly,” Butler said.

But adjusting to those made newly eligible by the legislation is more difficult and will take more time, he said. For instance, the Labor Department considered requiring a 2019 tax return from self-employed applicants, but reconsidered after realizing that the extended deadline for filing returns, to July 15, would cause problems. 

The law vastly expanded the eligibility for benefits by allowing individuals to self-certify to a set of conditions. It opened benefits to those diagnosed with COVID-19 or awaiting diagnosis, those caring for a sick family member or a child whose school has closed, workers under quarantine or whose workplace is shut down, those ready to commence a job, and even workers forced to quit by the public health emergency. 

Other clauses bring in the self-employed, independent contractors, those seeking part-time employment, even individuals who do not have sufficient work history to qualify for unemployment insurance.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry said it was awaiting more guidance from the Labor Department, after which it must modify its systems to reflect that guidance. But approved benefits could be retroactive to the week ending April 4, the spokesperson said. 

Texas and Illinois illustrate how states are taking different approaches to implementation. Texas is encouraging workers to apply now, although a spokesman said the state does not know yet when it will start sending out checks based on the new benefits.

By contrast, Illinois has asked those who seek benefits on the basis of new eligibility to hold off on filing until its system has been modified, allowing agency employees to process the flood of applications that meet existing unemployment rules.

A spokesman for the Washington Employment Security Department said that the agency now has the Labor Department guidance it needs but will not be able to implement changes to its systems until April 18.