Idaho Gov. Brad Little at a news conference Thursday. On delayed unemployment-compensation payments, he said, “We’ve got three new programs, all loaded onto an agency that their job 80 days ago was to try and find people jobs. … We’re doing all we can.” | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Some jobless Idahoans still await unemployment compensation 11 weeks after Gov. Brad Little declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic.
The Idaho Department of Labor, struggling with the surge in claims that began in mid-March, appears to be making progress. It began paying $600 federally funded supplements to the state’s regular weekly payments in late April. In mid-May, it began making federally funded payments to self-employed people not normally eligible for unemployment compensation.
Late Friday, the department issued a news release saying that it has contracted with a call center to handle questions from claimants starting Monday.
Complaints to the Statesman from Idahoans worried because they haven’t been paid have diminished in recent weeks, though they’re still coming. Claims are falling as some Idahoans return to work, but the department’s phone lines remain jammed, with some users reporting that the phone system hangs up on them automatically after they wait on hold for nearly an hour.
When they do get through, some people whose claims raised questions about their potential eligibility say they’re told that it may take several additional weeks, or even months, before adjudicators can review them.
Meanwhile, many of these workers struggle to pay bills.
On Saturday, the department’s website went down, raising fears among some people that they would be unable to meet Sunday’s deadline to file their weekly certifications for next week’s payments. The site was back up Saturday afternoon.
The department has not answered Statesman questions in recent weeks about the status of its case backlog, so its size is not publicly known, nor is the pace of progress toward eliminating it.
The department told the Statesman in late April that nearly 28,000 people had unprocessed claims. Little soon thereafter pegged the number at about 40,000.
LITTLE: ‘I’M NOT MAKING EXCUSES. IT’S UNACCEPTABLE’
Little has been asked about people going without payments several times in recent news conferences. “My heart goes out to ‘em,” he said April 23.
In his latest news conference Thursday, the governor emphasized that Congress’ passage in late March of a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief law placed burdens on state labor departments across the country that the agencies were not set up to handle.
“We are adding people, we are adding phone lines, we are adding consultants, we’re adding call centers,” he said.
He suggested the problem anguishes him. “That person that you alluded to,” he said in response to one questioner, “that I wake up first thing in the morning, think about almost the last thing going to bed at night, that needs those benefits, that’s a little solace,” Little said.
“I’m not making excuses for it,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. But we are throwing a lot of resources and a lot of time at it.”
Then he added: “Of course, we always hear from the people that aren’t getting the money, but then when they get a big check with six or eight weeks of back [pay], they’re mysteriously quiet.”
One self-employed Boisean told the Statesman on Saturday that he had filed in March for regular state payments of $168 per week plus the $600 federal supplements, but had received just one $768 payment.
The man, who owns a videography business, shared a string of emails with state personnel detailing his efforts to follow Labor Department counselors’ sometimes-conflicting instructions. Still, the payments didn’t come.
At one point, he said by phone, the information he had placed into the digital claim system in March disappeared without explanation. He was directed to resupply it.
“I felt lost,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used to avoid hurting his business reputation.
He said the single payment came a little more than a week ago. “It came out of nowhere,” he said.
As he spoke, he checked his bank account and saw that the department had deposited $3,746 into his account Saturday morning. Still, he said, the two payments add up to just half of what he is owed.
LATEST DATA ON IDAHO’S UNEMPLOYED WORKERS
The department has released certain data, including:
Idaho’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 11.5% in April, up from a record-low 2.5% in March. Nearly 103,000 Idahoans are now out of work.
The April jobless rate is the highest on record. The previous record was 10.2 percent in December 1982. The Great Recession peak was 9.6% in June 2009.
Laid-off workers have filed 141,628 initial claims for unemployment benefits since mid-March, 2.4 times the number of claims filed in all of 2019.
Initial claims for unemployment compensation fell 18 percent in the week ending May 23 to 4,727.
Continued claims – the number of people who requested a benefit payment – continued to decline for the third consecutive week, falling to 56,692, down 5.7 percent from the previous week.
Through May 23, the state paid out $278 million in COVID-19-related state and federal benefits.
WHAT CLAIMANTS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE NEW CALL CENTER
The department’s news release says in part:
“All claimants who call Labor will be directed to call a new toll-free number — (833) 410-1009 — where an additional 30 people will be available to answer calls, take new claims over the phone and unlock accounts, among other tasks. These additional resources free up Labor staff to handle more complex issues with claims.
“The call center will be staffed to answer calls from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. MT Monday-Friday. Spanish speaking agents will also be available.”