Like millions of Americans, Kathleen Kroeger lost her job in the coronavirus pandemic and needed help. Five months later, she is still looking for it alongside many other Americans.
States are overflowing with unemployment claims, which is delaying solving even minor paperwork problems. In some cases, legal action has been taken to clear the traffic jam. It’s an issue that states are grappling with in different ways, from adding phone staff to hiring contractors, and a challenge that President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has made a priority.
“Basic unemployment of $ 345 a week alone would have made a big difference,” said Kroeger, 40, who ran a restaurant near her home in Piedmont, SD until it closed in March due to the pandemic . She left soon after to tackle her own COVID-19 case and other health issues.
She also missed the $ 600 weekly extended benefits offered by the CARES Act through July because the state never approved her for benefits.
Kroeger checked daily and made dozen unsuccessful calls to the Department of Labor & Regulation in South Dakota.
“I must have spoken to 35 people,” said Kroeger, who used up her savings and borrowed money from her family before finding another job in August. She applied for benefits in early May. “It’s always the same story -” It’s on someone’s desk, they’re going through it all, they’re going to let you know. ‘”
Residues the norm
Backlog has become the norm in nearly all states, according to federal freshness reports reviewed by Stateline. As of November 1, only three states, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Wyoming, met the federal standard that 87% of applicants would receive benefit payments within three weeks.
The 87% standard, set by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2005, does not provide for penalties, but does require states to have a plan to correct the problem.
South Dakota had the lowest freshness rate: only 18.8% of payments were out within three weeks, followed by Kentucky (27.1%) and Maryland (27.9%). In 14 states, including New York and California, the rate was below half.
Before the pandemic, almost every state was at or above 87%. North Carolina had the lowest rate, 79.6%. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia paid 90% or more of the claims within three weeks. now nobody does.
States have a legal obligation to pay benefits on time, said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Progressive Century Foundation and co-author of an October report on government unemployment schemes. Some proponents have gone to court to force payments and press for change.
“The inability of states to climb out of the early payment hole is an example of the systemic flaws that COVID-19 is exposing,” said Stettner. “The federal government should urge them to understand their backlog and their bottlenecks and to find solutions.”
In South Dakota, where the three-week payment rate fell from 98.0% in January to 18.8% in October, the state is working “ASAP” on claims processing and is now receiving payment for most first-time claims within from three weeks, said Dawn Dovre, deputy secretary of the state Department of Labor and Regulation.
“Some benefit payments are delayed for reasons ranging from simple typographical errors to more complex issues of deductible income and job separation,” Dovre wrote via email. Dovre said she could not comment on the details of late cases such as Kroeger’s, but “these claims and situations are complex”.
This spring, state after state, bureaucracies struggled to keep up with millions of legitimate claims:
- In Wisconsin, less than 1% of the 41 million calls to the Department of Workforce Development were answered between mid-March and June, although $ 9.3 million was spent on employees in three call centers, according to an impartial state audit. The state has since partnered with Google to clean up 103,000 arrears on lagging claims.
- In California, state prisoners investigating the system were able to figure out how to obtain fraudulent unemployment benefits, while legitimate unemployed residents struggled to get help, according to prosecutors.
- And both Kentucky and Pennsylvania, struggling with turnaround times, hired accounting firm Ernst & Young to clarify claims and resolve disputes. Results were mixed: even with outside help, Kentucky’s three-week payment rate steadily declined from 92.5% in April to 27.1% in October.
The states were first hit with benefit claims in March when claims rose from 282,000 to nearly 6.9 million and new claims continue to come in at an unprecedented rate of more than 700,000 per week. Massive delays and a host of complaints resulted in shocks at the state labor offices, an expansion in computer capacity, and even a call to the National Guard to answer phone lines.
But even if modernization increases the efficiency of routine cases, the number of left and unresolved cases continues to rise, and late payments are on the rise in most countries. Fast-paying states targeted fraud and began scrutinizing applications, creating more bottlenecks.
In announcing his economic appointments this week, Biden reiterated his commitment to “provide immediate economic relief to the American people.” Faster unemployment benefits was an integral part of his transition plan, which included a commitment to “Americans who lose their jobs financially by making sure they receive their unemployment insurance in full and on time.”
The plan promises to help states with manpower, technology, training and best practices from other countries.
However, some legal experts see red tape as the biggest barrier to payment.
The most common cause of delay is an unusual situation or an accidental wrong answer, e.g. For example, accidentally checking the box that indicates that a person was not available for work, which means that they are not entitled to benefits.
Such mistakes, however trivial, require personal attention, and many states are simply too overwhelmed by the number of jobless claims to run one-off routine investigations, said Sarah Hymowitz, attorney for the Workers Legal Rights Project, a nonprofit in New Jersey who have low income people who have problems getting benefits.
Rules that need scrutiny are more of an obstacle than personal or computer performance, Hymowitz said. The three-week payment rate in New Jersey is 56.2% as of October, compared to 97.4% in March.
Mark Thierman, an attorney leading a class action lawsuit against Nevada for slow benefit payments, said another factor is the use of pre-loaded bank cards and wire transfers to expedite payment. While well-intentioned, they have created enticing targets for criminal fraud because a well-designed fake application can produce money instantly.
Wire transfers and debit cards are too tempting for organized fraudsters, forcing the state to withhold legitimate inquiries, Thierman said, creating yet another bureaucratic thicket that leaves more legitimate claims unpaid.
Fraud would be much more difficult, but payment could be faster if states paid by checks, he said.
“(Nevada) could easily do a computer verification of the original application, follow the rules, and pay by check, with the bank doing the identity verification,” Thierman said.
The overlapping rules often mean people wait months for action and then file lawsuits to get payment. In a typical case in New Jersey, prior to the pandemic, a client had requested a temporary disability and created a red flag in the system that needed to be investigated to ensure he was available for work again, Hymowitz said.
“There are no quick fixes to this,” Hymowitz said, because unemployment schemes favor employers with excessive claims coverage, not workers who need help in an emergency, she said.