Hawaii resident Jazmine has been waiting over a month for her unemployment claim to be approved. Her account says “application processing” and her inquiries have been met with deafening silence. “I’ve called several thousand times and nothing. No answers. Ever,” Jazmine shared.
Unemployment claims in the US have hit historic highs and the April report is expected to show the highest unemployment rate on record. This has left state unemployment offices overwhelmed and seriously behind in processing claims.
Why have there been so many unemployment claims?
The pandemic and subsequent economic fall out has forced many businesses to close their doors, both temporarily and permanently, leaving millions of Americans without a source of income.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved on March 27th, expanded the eligibility requirements for jobless Americans. Those who are temporarily laid off, exposed to the virus and quarantined, or those caring for sick family members can now submit a claim for unemployment.
Despite promises, people are still not getting their checks
The CARES Act promised to provide relief, but the government infrastructure has not been prepared for the high volume of unemployment claims. Computer systems are crashing and talking to someone on the phone is nearly impossible.
Since been completely furloughed, and have been making weekly claim certifications when I can get into the website. Most of the time, it’s nearly impossible to log in due to high volume.
“I first applied for partial unemployment March 18,” Jazmine told us. “I sent in the application approximately three or four times in the first half of that week. The website wasn’t built for a large amount of traffic and was crashing often, many times in the middle of an application being submitted. I’ve since been completely furloughed, and have been making weekly claim certifications when I can get into the website. Most of the time, it’s nearly impossible to log in due to high volume.”
Jazmine is not the only one waiting in unemployment purgatory for approval and the first check.
Sean and Laney Fleming recently suffered a job loss. Sean, an admission representative in California, was laid off when his school shut down due to COVID. He applied for unemployment on April 2nd and has not heard anything. Laney Fleming, says “We call multiple times a day, and when we have not gotten any response or help.”
Kathleen McLaughlin, a registered nurse in the state of Oregon, was laid off temporarily due to COVID. “I first applied for unemployment on March 23rd. About 10 days later, I got a Wage and Potential Benefit report with an amount I might expect to receive. This same day I got a letter that no payment was being made because of a pending decision regarding my pension pay.”
Basically, I work to pay for my health care. Each week I get a letter from the State of Oregon saying my claim is pending.
Per McLaughlin: “I work part-time as a registered nurse, but do get a monthly pension from a prior nursing career. The money I make working part-time offsets the $1,100 I pay each month for health care. Basically, I work to pay for my health care. Each week I get a letter from the State of Oregon saying my claim is pending. I have tried to call my state unemployment office but only get a busy signal. Last week the computer system that I filed on was having a major issue and I wasn’t able to properly file.”
What you can do if you have not heard back from your state unemployment office
On every state’s unemployment homepage, there is a similar note about the extended time it takes to process your claim ending in “We appreciate your patience.” Claims are backed up and there is not much you can do to speed up the process, but you may be able to speak to a human using one of the methods below.
1. A Rapid Response Coordinator
After no response from the many calls to the unemployment office for Oregon, McLaughlin reached out to her former employer for help. They provided her with the name and number of a Rapid Response Coordinator. McLaughlin says she was able to talk to him, and while he could not answer all of her questions, he made an important point: He encouraged her to continue to file every week no matter what. “Eventually they will get caught up,” was his advice.
2. Schedule A Phone Interview Appointment
Some states, like California, offer phone interview appointment scheduling. If you can get on the schedule, hopefully, you can talk to someone in person about your unemployment status.
If you have not heard anything about your application or cannot log in due to high volume, many states are opening a self-service phone line. This self-service line will provide your current status and payment information, just as your online account displays. Check the unemployment homepage to see if this is an option.
Learning to survive without unemployment benefits
Some families are able to get by, for now. The Flemings are living off savings and deferring all loan payments to make ends meet.
Jazmine says she is getting by with “A combination of emergency savings, a partner that is still receiving a salary, and the grace of my community. My landlord isn’t requiring rent to be paid on time right now, and while a large portion of my emergency fund just went to emergency medical bills, I’ll be able to last a while more. My company is continuing to pay the employer portion of my medical plan, but also started paying the employee portion as well.”
McLaughlin is grateful for her financial position. “I feel like I am one of the lucky ones because I do have a pension that helps pay most of the bills,” she shared. “I also have some savings I can live on for now.”
Changes are happening, slowly
An overloaded system and millions without unemployment insurance is a problem, but Jazmine is optimistic about Hawaii which previously only had 10 employees per island handling unemployment claims.
She says the state has already made changes to improve the infrastructure and accommodate the major influx of applications. “The government has allocated other furloughed government employees to work in the unemployment department and has set up several call centers using public libraries just to answer the massive amount of phone calls. The governor has also requested an additional 80 or so employees be retrained to work in the unemployment department during the pandemic as well as volunteers to help answer phone calls.”
McLaughlin recently received good news from her job. “My employer called me today and said I can work this week as they got a CARES loan to continue to operate, but they are not certain how long I will be able to work.”
What can be seen across all states is communities coming together and sharing what they know. Social media and public forums are being turned into a resource for those who can’t speak to someone regarding their claim. Even in that public space, the resounding truth is that it will take time and the employees processing the unemployment claims are doing their best.
“The technology and processes that were in place just weren’t enough to handle this scenario, and they’re playing catch up. But it will get better,” Jazmine says.
Bethany McCamish is a personal finance writer and the founder of His & Her Fi.
Feature Illustration: Laura Caseley For The Money Manual