ARKANSAS, USA — With another 2.1 million people filing for jobless benefits in the U.S. in the past week, it’s clear there are a lot of people turning to both state and federal governments for money promised to them as part of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Arkansas, after several fits and starts, that money is flowing, but state officials say that if job opportunities appear, take advantage of them.
“You just have such an overwhelming demand of individuals who are now seeking that assistance,” said Mike Preston, the Arkansas secretary of commerce.
Preston’s biggest headache has been the website designed to deliver Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The built-from-scratch portal had to be taken offline when security flaws were exposed.
“To date, we’ve had about 20-million dollars that has already been processed and paid out to applicants and to us, that’s the most important thing,” Preston said.
That amount represents a good chunk of the aid requested by the 32,000 freelancers and contractors who never had an unemployment safety net until Congress created it in the CARES Act in April. But the PUA system promised money to cover the entire time a person was out of work. That means paying money back-dated to when they first got affected. That big windfall is still on hold.
“We are in the process of building that feature out into the system. We’re maybe a week or two away from having that,” Preston said.
In the meantime, the secretary advises people to keep filing each week and if you get back to work, check back later to get March and April money.
For people collecting traditional unemployment benefits, Preston says job prospects are improving as the economy reopens. He and Governor Asa Hutchinson have urged workers to return to jobs if employers make the call, and they warn the extra $600 a week of federal money added to checks won’t last forever.
“People do have to realize that those funds are going to run out,” Preston said. “At some point, they’re going to need to go back to work. And businesses are taking precautions to make sure they’re doing that in a safe, secure manner.”
But Preston said that on a day that saw the biggest one-day rise in positive cases in the state. His urging people back to work won’t sit well with many concerned for their safety. He and other state leaders say the counter argument is that waiting could mean the job never comes back.
“If you don’t have the employees coming back to work in the business, if you don’t have the customers coming back, that business is not going to exist anymore,” Preston said.
At the federal level, many have questions about stimulus checks or Economic Impact Payments. The IRS has added thousands of phone operators in recent weeks with an EIP hotline at 1-800-919-9835 or by dialing the main customer service number 1-800-829-1040 and choosing option 7. Wait times are still long and people may be able to find answer more quickly online.