Carolina Curious: Why The Slow Response To Unemployment Benefit Claims?
The past few months have seen a drastic rise in the numbers of unemployment claims in North Carolina, and the agency that deals with processing them is overwhelmed — endless phone waits, online confusion — leaving thousands in desperate need of financial relief now.
For WFDD's series Carolina Curious, we’ve received a slew of questions from listeners who want to know where their money is, why it’s taking so long, and the best way to file.
First, some background on unemployment benefits: to get them, you either have to be out of work or received reduced hours through no fault of your own. You can apply by phone or online at the state’s Division of Employment Security (DES) website. Create an account, fill out an interactive application — the entire process typically takes less than an hour.
But if conflicts arise, it’s a different story according to Legal Aid of North Carolina supervising attorney John Keller.
“Let’s say there was a question of, ‘Well, the employer said I was fired for insubordination, but it’s not true. I didn’t say anything that was wrong,’” says Keller.
In that case, he says, things can get complicated quickly, generating additional paperwork to include the employer’s side of the dispute.
“And someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose,” he says. “And based on that decision, the losing party can request to have a hearing in front of an appeals referee, and then the appeals referee will listen to both sides and then make a decision about whether or not the employee is going to get unemployment benefits.”
And he says that process can take anywhere from four to eight weeks. Keller says the unemployment applications themselves are simple and pretty straightforward. Today’s COVID-19 landscape is anything but.
“In sort of normal times, DES would be accepting and processing approximately 3,000 unemployment applications per week,” says Keller. “And during the month of April, there were days where they were receiving 1,000 applications per hour.”
A typical year sees roughly 150,000 applications for unemployment benefits in North Carolina. Just in the last few months alone, there have more than a million.
“That gives you a sense of why there’s so much frustration with folks applying saying that either they can’t get in, or once they got in, the application has remained in some kind of a pending status, and they can’t get through and find out what’s going on with their application,” says Keller.
DES has more than doubled its staff responding at the call center, and significantly increased tech staff to process applications. But it’s still not adequate, and Keller recommends applying online.
Adding to the backlog is the addition of three new benefits programs designed to help jobless individuals through the COVID recession. All three are federally funded as part of the $2 trillion economic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Keller says each brings economic relief, but also its own set of unique processing headaches, and one confusing acronym after another.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, covers folks working outside of the typical 9-5 model who were previously denied unemployment assistance.
“It is allowing people who are self-employed or people who are independent contractors, or people who are just simply part-time workers without a lot of wage history built up in the past year," says Keller. "These three groups of people can now apply for unemployment benefits.”
Prior to the pandemic, if you ran your own hair salon, for example, and business got slow, that was your problem. PUA accepts all these applications. But Keller says, between the minimal federal guidelines, and confusion surrounding which documents and payment history to upload, handling the claims has led to huge backlogs.
Pandemic Unemployment Compensation
The second new program is PUC: Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. You can think of this as bonus dollars from the federal government.
“If you generate your state unemployment claim, whatever you get per week you’re going to get $600 per week on top of that up through the end of July,” says Keller. “If you are one of these independent contractors, self-employed; you’re now out of work; you generate a PUA claim; you get a $600-dollar PUC payment on top of your PUA benefit.”
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation
Finally, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensations program, or PEUC, is designed to help folks who’ve tapped out their state unemployment benefits. It provides up to thirteen weeks of additional support.
Taken all together, these programs mean a substantial amount of money for many households, adding to the frustration level for the thousands who’ve been left waiting.
“DES is well aware of the delays in processing applications, and they’re well aware of peoples’ inability to get in on the phone,” Keller says. “And they are working as hard as they can from our perspective to try to get these problems fixed.”
That may be cold comfort to former DES head Lockhart Taylor. On Wednesday, following numerous complaints about long waits being faced by the unemployed, Taylor was removed from his post by Governor Roy Cooper.