Marci Oberst sat down at her computer Tuesday and embarked on what’s become a daily ritual – trying to log onto the Maryland Department of Labor’s website so she can extend her unemployment insurance.
At 9:30 AM, she was number 88,000 in line, according to the state’s labor website.
“You call the Department of Labor (and) it’s either busy or gives you a recording and just hangs up on you,” says Oberst who is trying to apply for the extra 13 weeks of benefits that are part of the $2.2 trillion federal emergency stimulus package. “There’s no way to get help, to get through the system.”
It’s a common complaint.
State unemployment systems have been crushed under the weight of a record-breaking 30 million Americans who filed claims in six weeks as businesses crippled by the coronavirus pandemic laid off and furloughed workers. Thursday’s new claims report added 3.8 million to the tally.
But the federal relief act that has made unemployment assistance available to people who previously wouldn’t have been eligible has made a stressful process even more complicated.
A worker who may have had two jobs, but lost one, or who was laid off shortly after being hired, are among the many who have questions about whether they qualify for aid. They struggle to find a state employee to answer their questions. And some state workers appear to be confused, applicants say, giving conflicting answers as they try to get up to speed on a raft of new rules.
“It’s a whole extra layer of complexity that state unemployment insurance agents ordinarily would not face,” says Gary Burtless, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “The humanitarian and practical reason for what Congress did is understandable, but it puts a system already under tremendous pressure just dealing with standard unemployment insurance benefits under even greater pressure.”
No job and nobody to talk to
The Economic Policy Institute found that for every 10 people who said they successfully filed a jobless claim in the previous four weeks, three to four more attempted to apply but couldn’t get through the system to file a claim.
Meanwhile, another two people didn’t even bother to try because it seemed too hard.
Overall, the Institute estimates that roughly 8.9 to 13.9 million more Americans could have applied for benefits so far had the process been less cumbersome.
Not only did it take time for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to trickle down to state unemployment insurance offices, but state employees have also had to figure out how to process the claims, says Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.
That’s on top of handling the “sheer magnitude of … of people filing claims,” she says, adding that it’s even taking time for some online applications to be updated so their questions address the wider array of situations workers are facing.
“They’ve had to ask questions they didn’t have to ask before,” Gould says. “I think that’s why you’re seeing longer wait times in some states … Some states have more clarity and are processing claims much more quickly than others.”
Some get benefits right away, while others wait
Even some workers who would typically be able to access unemployment insurance without the special federal provisions in place are having a hard time getting it.
Connor Sweeney had been a server at a restaurant in Spokane, Washington, since 2018, but the business closed in mid-March because of a state-ordered shutdown. Sweeney filed for unemployment insurance on March 15.
He says he worked well over 680 hours, the amount of time the state typically required for standard benefits. But while his co-workers began to get payments soon after they applied, his claim is still pending. That’s after he spent weeks trying to file with the overwhelmed system in the first place.
Now he checks the state’s unemployment website daily. “I have to refresh a million times before I can even log in’’ says Sweeney, who adds that he’s called hundreds of times in the past month.
Usually, a recording says all circuits are busy and to call back later. The one time he got through and was put on hold, he waited four and a half hours before giving up shortly before he knew the office would be closing. “It’s just impossible to get ahold of them.’’
When he applied for unemployment insurance roughly five years ago, it only took two weeks for him to secure his benefits. “I know this has been … stressful for everyone, especially for the unemployment office because it’s crazy how many are filing,’’ he says, “but it’s been six weeks. I feel like they should have gotten their stuff together already. This shouldn’t be happening anymore.’’
Washington state unemployment officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
When it comes to benefits, the state may matter
Not only does the size of financial benefits differ from state to state. So does the amount of difficulty people may encounter when they apply.
“My mother was furloughed in Pennsylvania and on Sunday it took her 25 minutes to get … signed up,” Oberst says.
That’s a marked contrast to her own experience in Maryland. “I’m surprised because I’m already a user and all my information is in (the system) that it’s been this difficult for an entire month,” she says.
Oberst was laid off in September from her job as a regional sales manager for a wine company when the business was purchased. Her jobless claim went through quickly then, and she soon began receiving roughly $350 a week, after taxes.
But her benefits ran out in March, just when the coronavirus crisis hit. Oberst has been trying to apply for the extra 13 weeks of relief the federal government has tacked on for unemployed workers, but she can’t even access the website.
“As soon as you click on the Maryland department website it automatically gives you a ticket number,” says Oberst who repeatedly gets error messages when she tries to enter her password.
Maryland’s Labor Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment but said in a post Monday that the unemployment division’s new one-stop application was meant to streamline the process. “The launch of the site has clearly fallen short,’’ it said.
Before she lost her job, Oberst made $160,000 a year.” Now it’s been three weeks without anything,” she says.
Her bank has allowed her to put off paying her mortgage for three months, and her car payment is also on hold for sixty days. Additionally, Oberst has borrowed money from her 401(k), and “we’ve definitely cut back on the groceries,” she says, adding that the family is “working on everything in our freezer and cabinets before we go out” to the supermarket.
Still, her husband is working, and Oberst says she knows her situation could be much worse.
“I’m sure there are people in much more dire need,” she says.
More money available than ever before
Despite the initial frustrations and speed bumps, economists say that states are gradually catching up to the new federal changes and the backlog of claims.
The size of unemployment benefits available to filers is also unprecedented.
“I would predict more than half the people who have earnings in the bottom half of the wage distribution in the U.S. are going to receive weekly benefits that are greater than the amount of earnings they lost as a result of COVID,” Burtless says. “We’ve never been that generous in the history of the program.”
In the meantime, “nuanced questions about benefits and timing of payments inevitably arise that only those state agencies can answer,” says Justine Phillips, an employment attorney with the Sheppard Mullin law firm. Before trying to call, check out the online primers that many states are posting about benefits, she said.
And, Gould says, applicants should continue clicking, emailing and calling until they can file their claims.
“These delays are incredibly meaningful to those workers and their families and their abilities to make ends meet,” says Gould. “Keep trying and eventually they’ll get through.”