Fork restaurant in Downtown Boise. Thousands of Idahoans working in restaurants, hotels, retail stores and other sectors have lost jobs since the coronavirus pandemic reached Idaho in March. | Katherine Jones, Idaho Statesman
You lost your job five weeks ago. You applied for unemployment compensation. You received a reply from the Idaho Department of Labor saying the agency had questions about your application and would get back to you.
Five weeks later, no one has called back. You’ve tried calling and gotten busy signals. You’ve tried the department’s chat service, but your chat buddy offered no new information.
RELATED | State unemployment benefits phone lines ‘overwhelmed and overloaded’
The rent is due. Bills are piling up. You still don’t have your money, and you don’t know why.
Tens of thousands of Idahoans are in this limbo, Department of Labor officials acknowledged Thursday to the Idaho Statesman. The Statesman and other news outlets have received complaints from people frustrated by a lack of communication about their still-pending applications.
Some applicants fired off angry emails to the Statesman over Gov. Brad Little’s answer Thursday to a reporter’s question about unemployment-benefit delays at a news conference.
“I believe a lot of the unemployment is caught up at this point in time. … I don’t think there’s that long of a wait,” Little said.
1 in 4 Idaho claims delayed
Laid-off Idaho workers have filed 117,811 initial claims for unemployment benefits in the six weeks since Little declared an emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Labor Department said Thursday in a news release.
The department had 27,920 claims with pending issues preventing payment as of Thursday, spokeswoman Georgia Smith said in an email to the Statesman. That’s 23.7% of the initial claims, nearly 1 in 4.
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Thousands of self-employed Idahoans are waiting for money too.
The self-employed, including contract and gig-economy workers, don’t pay the unemployment insurance taxes that employers pay, and they are not normally eligible to collect unemployment compensation. But Congress promised them special-assistance payments when it passed a $2 trillion relief bill on March 20. State unemployment agencies were handed the task of distributing the money.
‘I’m not angry. I’m just wondering.’
Boisean David Tucker, who co-owns a marketing agency, is one of those self-employed workers. He filed for the special payments early this week — the first time, he said by phone, that he has ever sought unemployment compensation.
His claim went promptly into pending status. He is unsure whether the Labor Department needs more information from him.
“Most of my clients are in the hospitality industry,” Tucker said by phone. “Around April 1, I got a lot of notices from clients saying they … had to pause what they were doing in paying us.”
He researched possible assistance under the relief law. The Idaho online filing process was easy, he said, but once he got through it, “It seemed to me like everything in my unemployment console looked like I’d already been put on pause.”
“As I suspected, the system is overwhelmed,” he said. “I’m not angry. I’m just wondering what the solution is, and what I can do to expedite the process, get to the top of the pile, whatever … We need to continue to pay our bills.”
Joshua McKenna, the Labor Department’s unemployment insurance benefits chief, said the department is still setting up its system for paying people like Tucker who are ineligible for the state’s regular programs. One problem: The department has no employer-provided wage information for self-employed workers, as it does for laid-off employees.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” McKenna said by phone. “We don’t even know what those individuals have earned … It’s a brand-new process.”
In recent weeks, the department had said it expects to begin paying the self-employed workers in May. Now it is saying mid-May.
They will receive $168 to $448 per week for up to 39 weeks, plus $600 weekly supplements appropriated by Congress. The program ends Dec. 26.
For many workers, payments flow promptly
Thousands of other claimants have had no trouble. The department can readily check their applications against their employers’ records of their wages, verify eligibility and calculate payment amounts. Payments start flowing a week or so later and continue weekly as long as the claimant keeps filing weekly reports.
The department says it sent $45 million to laid-off workers between March 23 and April 25, with payouts for the week of April 19-25 reaching $13.7 million, a 7 percent increase over the previous week.
Payments this year are averaging $316 per week.
That amount does not include the $600 supplemental weekly payments Congress approved that the Labor Department also administers. The supplemental money began showing up in Idaho workers’ bank accounts and state-issued debit cards this week — $63 million so far, including accumulated payments as far back as March 29.
“Money is going out the door,” Smith said. “It’s significant.”
Answers on applications trigger delays
But applicants must run a gantlet of questions aimed at assuring eligibility and preventing misuse of tax money. If a worker says she is unavailable for full-time work? That may trigger a review by a claims adjudicator. The worker quit a job or was discharged for cause? Ditto. “We need to get additional information,” McKenna said.
That’s where the system has broken down. McKenna acknowledges that laid-off and self-employed workers in pending status aren’t getting so much as a weekly email advising them to hang in there. The department is not set up to do that, and it has too many pending claims to work through them quickly.
Officials say they are trying to whittle the backlog. Before Little declared an emergency March 13 because of COVID-19, the department had 21 claims specialists who handled incoming phone calls and questions posed in online chats, McKenna said. It had 25 adjudicators.
Since then, the department has reassigned 55 employees across the state to lend a hand with the application deluge. It has pulled four retirees with unemployment-insurance experience back to work.
And it has just hired more people: Twelve new claims specialists will begin work Monday, and eight more a couple of weeks after that, McKenna said.
Meanwhile, Smith says applicants eager for information can receive general updates by reading the department’s blog, Idaho@Work, on the department’s website or by signing up for emails. They can also check on the site for updated FAQs and follow the department on Facebook.
How much money you’ll get if you’re laid off or furloughed
The basic, regular benefit ranges from $72 to $448 per week, depending on how much you earned while employed. The $72 is for a full-time, minimum-wage worker. That amount will stay put as long as Idaho’s minimum wage remains $7.25 an hour. The $448 maximum is based on Idaho’s median wage, and it fluctuates from year to year.
Once you qualify for regular unemployment payments, you’ll get the $600 per week along with your regular unemployment payments no matter how much or how little you made before your layoff. The $600 benefit is retroactive to March 29 and will end July 25.
How much money you’ll get if you’re self-employed
Self-employed workers, including small-business owners, independent contractors and gig-economy workers, will receive $168 to $448 per week for up to 39 weeks, plus the $600 weekly supplements.
Part-time workers who do not have enough work history to be eligible for regular unemployment may qualify for this, too.
The department says it expects to start issuing these payments in mid-May.
This program — called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA — ends Dec. 26.
Stand by your phone from 4 to 6 p.m.
For the past few weeks, the department has set aside the hours of 4 to 6 p.m. for staff to return applicants’ calls and obtain or share information to resolve pending cases.
“To successfully contact people we need to reach,” Smith said by email, “we need them to make sure:
“1. Their voicemail inbox is set up and isn’t full,
“2. They have their phones with them during these hours, and
“3. They answer when the phone rings during between 4 and 6 p.m. – even if they don’t recognize the number.”
New: Collect unemployment for 13 extra weeks
Normally, laid-off Idahoans can draw the equivalent of 10 to 20 weeks of full unemployment compensation at the maximum weekly amount determined by a formula. The number of weeks can be stretched up to 52 if they continue to collect while working part-time, but the total payment cannot exceed the formula’s 10- to 20-week maximum.
In the coronavirus relief bill, Congress approved an extra 13 weeks of unemployment compensation at federal expense. The Idaho Department of Labor said Friday that is now ready to make these extended benefits available.
The department makes three points for people who want to apply:
You must be out of work and have exhausted regular unemployment benefits.
You must have a benefit year that ended after July 6, 2019. The payments are retroactive to March 29 or the first week after an individual exhausts benefits, whichever is later.
You must apply for extended benefits at labor.idaho.gov/claimantportal. To confirm a payment, you should log on to your account at the same address.
Assistant Editor Chadd Cripe contributed.
This story first appeared in the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.