As many as 2 million unemployed workers could experience delays in getting extended jobless benefits, despite lawmakers’ efforts to complete the $1.9 trillion stimulus package before the benefits ran out.
The forecasted delays of jobless benefits, including the $300 weekly supplement, are a result of how close lawmakers came to the deadline in mid-March when many of those benefits were set to expire, according to new research by Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
Other delays some recipients are experiencing have nothing to do with the stimulus, but instead are related to complicated processes for keeping people enrolled in unemployment benefits longer than a year, which varies state by state.
Abe Caldwell, 31, is one of those people. A bartender in Traverse City, Mich., who has been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic, Caldwell was bumped off the unemployment rolls last week for income reasons that he doesn’t fully understand.
“It was so stressful,” Caldwell said. “I filed the appeal, so we’ll see what happens with that. But I’m not gonna hold my breath.”
The new round of delays in unemployment insurance illustrates the challenges facing state and federal officials who are trying to get funds from the enormous coronavirus relief package into the hands of those who need them most. Some 18 million people are still collecting unemployment insurance, including many since the beginning of the pandemic.
Millions of others have also experienced delays getting stimulus checks after each relief package that authorized them over the past year. Backlogs at the IRS are causing delays for tax refunds this season.
But the pandemic has revealed how poorly prepared state unemployment systems and their often badly outdated computer systems are for a crisis of this magnitude.
The delays this round are not expected to be as bad as the last time Congress extended benefits, in December, after months of deadlocked negotiations. Stettner says his data showed that some 4 million to 5 million unemployed workers experienced delays then, and that those delays were longer than he expects these to be.
The Washington Post reached out to 15 states to ask whether they were expecting delays in implementing the benefits extension authorized by the new stimulus package.
One-third of the group — Oregon, Ohio, Kansas, Nevada and Oklahoma — said that it was either too early to tell or that they were awaiting guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor before they could give more information. Seven — Texas, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Michigan — said they were not anticipating large numbers of delays, with many saying that the possibility of delays is lessened because the bill extends existing programs rather than creating new ones. California and North Carolina did not offer a detailed response to requests for comment. Tennessee said it was working as quickly as possible to update its computer system to implement the programs.
The Labor Department said states still need to update their computer systems to adjust for the new programs. Workers will get paid retroactively for any weeks that are delayed, it said.
“Claimants will not see any gap in eligibility for the benefits extended by the American Rescue Plan Act,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement.
Throughout the pandemic, unemployed workers have reported long delays waiting for jobless aid, claims canceled under suspicion of fraud, and other issues that have caused them to be dropped from unemployment rolls, revealing weaknesses in a system meant to be a critical lifeline for people without the support of an income.
Michigan is one of a couple of states that have pushed some people off unemployment programs, according to local news reports. Automatic triggers in Michigan reduce how long individuals can collect aid after the state unemployment level drops below 8 percent, an issue that has nothing to do with the stimulus.
Caldwell, the bartender, has heard about so many problems with the Michigan unemployment system during the pandemic that he considers himself fortunate to have experienced a problem only after a year of collecting unemployment.
“I’ve been lucky, because there’s a lot of people in Michigan that have had issues just getting the money this whole time,” he said.
Caldwell lives with his fiancee, who is still employed, her mother and his 7-year-old daughter. He says it’s been a struggle to stay up to date on their payments, even with the aid flowing.
The federal supplements that have been authorized by Congress — $600 a week that lasted until the end of July, and then $300 a week from January until now — have been a critical lifeline, he said, helping them stay mostly above water on their mortgage, which has been in forbearance although they’ve been making payments when they can.
But being dropped from the unemployment rolls has upended his plans.
He said he doesn’t understand why his claim was denied. The letter the agency sent him said that he didn’t meet the state’s “monetary eligibility” for unemployment insurance, and Caldwell is wondering if that’s because his income for the past year has come solely from unemployment insurance.
When asked about Caldwell’s claim, Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said that some workers need to resubmit their claims after they are pushed off extended benefits, to qualify for the extensions in the latest stimulus.
Erika Benison, 42, has been on and off unemployment insurance over the past year from her job as the food and beverage director of a golf course in the Chicago suburbs, as her employer’s need for her to work has waned and waxed during the pandemic.
She said the extra $600 weekly payment that lasted from the beginning of the pandemic through July helped her and her husband stave off the forced sale of their home.
“We stockpiled money so we never had to deal with that again,” she said. “COVID was a blessing.”
They’re on better footing now, she said, but still living month to month.
She was frustrated when the extra $300 in federal unemployment, authorized in the December stimulus package, stopped showing up in her account in recent weeks, dropping her weekly payment to the $225 she gets from the state.
Worse yet, she couldn’t figure out what was stopping the payment, after searching online and scouring a letter the state sent her flagging a potential eligibility problem with her claim.
“They never have a problem explaining you’ve been bumped, but they don’t explain why you’ve been bumped,” said Benison, who found others facing the same problem in the Facebook group Illinois Unemployment Group.
George Wentworth, a former unemployment administrator for the state of Connecticut who is an expert on state systems, said that any delays now are the product of a complicated set of problems.
The majority stem from how many workers have now — or will soon have been — claiming unemployment for a year, a legacy of the tremendous job loss that marked the earliest months of the pandemic.
In normal times, workers are eligible for up to 26 weeks of benefits within a 52-week benefit year. But as it added more federal weeks of benefits, Congress changed the rules, as it has during other recessions, to prepare for higher levels of unemployment.
One year after filing for unemployment, workers can either continue filing for more federal weeks or establish entitlement to a new round of state benefits.
States labor agencies have been trying to provide directions on how to navigate this process, in news releases and on social media.
But if workers have done some work in the past year, such as being called back to their job temporarily, then they may only qualify for a lower amount of benefits because their earnings were impacted by the pandemic, Wentworth said.
The fact that the stimulus package passed only days before the unemployment expiration deadline didn’t help, Wentworth said. State unemployment agencies said that because this stimulus only extends current programs and doesn’t create them anew or change them, their effort is easier than in December.
“It was pretty clear when they passed the last one they were already late,” Wentworth said. “And then this time, they authorized it through March 14 knowing that with a new administration, it was pretty much predestined that it would run up close to that date to get this extension.”
Democrats, led by Sens. Ron Wyden, Ore., Sherrod Brown, Ohio, Mark Warner, Va., and Catherine Cortez Masto, Nev., introduced a bill last month that would allocate $500 million to the Department of Labor to streamline unemployment systems across states, but it is not clear how much of a priority it is for the new Congress.
Susie, an underemployed nanny in Chicago who requested that her last name not be used for fear of harming her employment prospects, said that she was caught off-guard when her benefits expired two weeks ago, after claiming them for about a year.
“It’s completely misleading to people and the general public to say that if we get this by March 14 we won’t get a lapse in benefit. That was never going to be the case,” she said. “These systems are incapable of handling this. No matter how many upgrades or millions of dollars they’re pumping into this, it’s not like flipping a switch. For some reason, it takes a lot to get them going again.”
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The Washington Post’s Alyssa Fowers contributed to this report.