The different speeds at which states are rolling out unemployment benefits have workers in some places facing long delays in getting their jobless payments.
Labor Department data show Florida lags all other states, with about 74 percent of initial claims filed through the week ending April 25 not yet advanced to the insured unemployed caseload, a category that indicates the applicant has been approved for benefits. One explanation for not advancing could be that a claim has been declined. But those who deal with the system daily depict a breakdown in processing that has left thousands adrift without benefits.
Kentucky also continues to struggle. The 61 percent of claims that are still unprocessed suggest that many eligible for unemployment benefits aren't receiving them. State officials say the Labor Department numbers don't include cases approved under the new federal programs, where they have made progress. But those who work with claimants in the state say clients find it nearly impossible to get answers on cases.
The states' mixed performances continue after seven weeks of high initial jobless claims. The Labor Department's weekly reports show more than 33 million people filed claims since the week ending March 21 as large sectors of the economy closed in an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress enacted four pieces of legislation to provide relief, including measures to increase unemployment benefits.
The Labor Department last week began to report data for some new federal jobless benefits. Some 995,000 claims have been approved nationwide under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for the self-employed, but gaps between the states raise the question of whether workers across the country have equal access to the benefits. Congress also increased the time the unemployed could receive traditional benefits and added a $600 weekly benefit through July.
Florida launched the PUA program April 29, but even the governor acknowledges the state's performance was poor.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a May 4 press conference, said he requested an investigation of the online unemployment system by Florida’s chief inspector general.
“One challenge was people couldn’t even access the system: you had times where this thing was down 50 percent of the time, 60 percent, 70,” DeSantis said. “I think at one point it may have been down 80-90 percent of the time.”
“These are people who just lost their jobs. They don’t know when their next paycheck is coming,” the governor said. “This just created a huge, huge source of angst with the public. People need to be able to submit a claim.”
DeSantis detailed measures to improve the system: the state had redone the computer system architecture and added dozens of servers, it opened five call centers, and it brought in some 2,000 employees from other agencies to input 150,000 paper applications.
Yet despite frantic efforts to fix Florida’s reemployment assistance program, lawyers who work with low-income clients there describe a broken system that has left unemployed workers with nowhere to turn.
“It’s still going on,” said Laurie Yadoff, a legal aid lawyer in Broward County. “I can sit and redial 20 times and not get anyone to pick up.”
After trying to help about 30 low-income workers get access, Yadoff recites a litany of grim details.
Unless her clients have a personal identification number, she can’t help them. And to get a new PIN, they must call into the system. Even when the call center answers, sometimes the call eventually drops, and the call center does not return calls, she said.
“My clients have been trying since March 13 to get a PIN number and haven’t been able to,” Yadoff said. “And there’s no one you can call.”
A Department of Economic Opportunity mobile app turned out to be another dead end, she said. “It’s become extremely frustrating and desperate,” said Yadoff. “And every day, something changes.”
One client became so anxious over repeated failures to get a claim approved that Yadoff said she referred her to a mental health provider. She added that another client told her to give up because the process was too frustrating.
“In fact, since this started, I haven’t even been to close a file,” Yadoff said. “I can’t even get any of these cases paid, resolved, nothing. And some of them are very straightforward.”
Jocelyn Armand, a supervisor at Legal Services of Greater Miami, offered a similar story.
“Initially, it was an access problem — just the inability to be able to file an application,” Armand said. “The website would kick you out, you couldn’t get in. Getting an application in was almost impossible.”
And often a call was necessary to finish the claim, to get a PIN or to resolve a question on the application.
“The phone lines were completely jammed. Even now, it’s almost impossible to get someone on the phone,” Armand said.
Many clients who got access now face a new problem, she said. Their claim has been denied, but the online account gives no reason, leaving them unsure whether they should file an appeal within the 20-day window.
“For lack of a better term, it is a complete mess,” Armand said. “And there’s nobody to provide any answers.’’
Kentucky’s numbers are better than Florida’s, but those who help low-income workers seek unemployment benefits reported similar obstacles.
Nick Maraman, of the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, said the state's website crashes often, and call centers have long waiting times. The system seems to be improving, he said, but he has one client who has been trying for six to seven weeks to file a claim.
“Normally, I can sit them down and say, 'File this,'” Maraman said. “I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my power as an attorney, when it’s something basic like getting on a website I can’t help them with.”
JT Henderson, a spokesman for Kentucky’s workforce development cabinet, suggested that the state is handling the claims better than is indicated by the Labor Department data, which show that 61 percent of claims have not yet advanced to insured unemployment. He said the state has made payments on about 70 percent of initial claims, both PUA and regular unemployment. Unpaid claims often have multiple issues that require manual review and adjudication, he said.
Indiana, the fifth-worst performing state, lags far behind states like Connecticut, Oregon and New York, all of which have backlogs of less than 20 percent. But Indiana's numbers are improving. After facing a backlog of almost 64 percent on April 18, Indiana lowered the number to 57.4 percent by April 25.
Josh Richardson, chief of staff for Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development, defends his agency’s record. It expanded its online system as quickly as possible while avoiding network crashes, boosting the initial claims count because workers could file without issues, he said.
Those who filed for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance early were denied because they didn't meet eligibility criteria for state unemployment, Richardson said, but their files were preserved, allowing them to file immediately when state systems were ready on April 25.
Some 73,000 filed for PUA benefits, and the agency approved 57,000 the same day, he said.
The hurdle any system faces is adjudicating the 25 percent of claims that present anomalies, Richardson said. Resolving them requires knowledgeable staff to work through the issue with the claimant to find out if he or she qualifies, and that takes time.
“There simply were not enough people to deal with the exceptions people had,” Richardson said. “I just think it was that shock to the system.”