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The state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system reopened Friday after undergoing changes mandated by the federal Continued Assistance Act (CAA) that Congress approved in December, Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston announced Monday.
“The revised PUA guidelines (from the U.S. Department of Labor) strengthen program integrity and prevent fraud and ID theft by adding new requirements for documentation submission and identification verification,” he said.
All claimants must submit documentation substantiating employment/self-employment/or the planned commencement of employment/self-employment within 90 days for applications before Feb. 1 or within 21 days for applications on or after Feb. 1. They must also verify their ID online through a link emailed to them by the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services or in person at a local ADWS office or Arkansas Workforce Center.
More than 50,000 Arkansans have been emailed instructions on how to apply for benefits on a weekly basis, Preston said.
In all, Arkansas paid out about $2.5 billion in unemployment benefits last year, Preston said, but its trust fund that covers traditional unemployment claims is healthy at $790 million. The bulk of the PUA benefits are covered by federal dollars, so the state’s fund won’t be significantly affected, Preston said in response to a reporter’s question during a meeting with the media on Monday.
He also touted the state’s 4.2% unemployment rate for December.
“I do believe in the next few months that number is going to fluctuate. We could see it come down further. We could see it go back up more as some industries continue to be impacted more than others,” Preston said. “What I do know is that Arkansas is on the right path, getting folks back to work. I’m very appreciative of the governor and his leadership, for allowing us to stay open, to focus on the economy in this health pandemic, to allow people to be able to continue to work and look for new opportunities. We’re still being proactive in economic recruitment and bringing new industries into our state.
“So we have work to do. We have to work to get folks back into the labor pool, back into that workforce, but I do feel we are moving in the right direction.”
ADWS Director Charisse Childers also spoke during the 40-minute session.
She said the division received PUA guidance on Jan. 8 and expected the requested changes — 40 of them — to take until Feb. 8 to complete. But due to increased work time and increased staffing, the first set of changes was finalized and approved on Jan. 20.
Additional guidance was provided on Jan. 22, and those changes were finalized and approved by Jan. 26. The system was then tested before its launch a few days later.
The minimum amount claimants are eligible for is $132 per week, but many may qualify for an additional $300 per week. Proof of earnings, which is not required to qualify for the $132, will be required for additional benefits. Payments will also be retroactive to December.
Asked if the new requirements will make it more difficult for people to receive their benefits, Preston said he believes they will cut down on the fraud that, last year, slowed the PUA process by requiring personnel to conduct further due diligence on applicants.
He didn’t have an update on last year’s alleged hacking of the PUA system and said he doesn’t expect an increase in what employers pay into the state’s unemployment trust fund.
Preston was also asked about whether the additional benefits discourage people from working.
He said whether people are being paid more to not work will continue to be a conversation as long as that additional $300 per week is in play. The search-for-work requirement will help prevent that situation, Preston said, and he noted that he is already hearing from employers who are concerned about finding workers amid the attractiveness of unemployment benefits.