“Delays, backlogs of claims and errors have left workers without any unemployment benefits while out of work due to Covid
Before the pandemic hit Stephanie Gaither worked as a driver for Uber and Lyft in Indianapolis, Indiana, making around $600 to $900 weekly. Now she is facing eviction and has her utilities shut off.
Like millions of other Americans who have seen their work dry up as the virus has spread, Gaither has fallen through the huge holes in the US’s unemployment benefits system. Her unemployment benefits expired in December 2020 and she has waited several weeks without any benefits while caring for her children who are currently learning remotely.
“I don’t get help from anyone so it’s really stressful. So many nights I can’t sleep. We’re running out of dog food and food for us. I do get food stamps and thankfully they just increased it, but I’m always running out. My credit is now shot. I’m depressed, I have no motivation, I feel hopeless,” said Gaither.
“I have absolutely nowhere to go if I’m evicted. That means we won’t be able to keep our dog we’ve had for eight years and my kids will lose most or all of their stuff. We’ll be living in my van in the middle of winter. If I’m evicted, I won’t be able to take much with me. I still haven’t taken down Christmas decorations. What’s the point? If I’m evicted I lose all that too. All of this could have been avoided if they sent out more stimulus checks and I received unemployment.”
State unemployment systems continue experiencing long delays, backlogs of unemployed claims, errors and long arbitration periods that have left millions of workers in the US without any unemployment benefits while they are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
An analysis of unemployed workers in January 2021 by the labor economist Eliza Forsythe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, estimated unemployment systems are currently only reaching at most 30% of all unemployed workers, leaving an estimated 8 million unemployed Americans not receiving benefits.
Several states still have thousands of unemployed claims backlogged. Total initial weekly unemployment claims have declined in recent weeks but have remained higher than the worst week of the 2008 recession for 49 straight weeks. The US labor market currently has 9.9m fewer jobs than before the pandemic.
According to a Washington Post analysis in January 2021, more than 1.2 million Americans were waiting on appeals to denied unemployment claims or for their initial claims to be processed.
Officially the US unemployment rate is 6.3% but as the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, noted last month the real unemployment rate in the US is closer to 10% when misclassification errors are taken into account.
And the situation for many of those out of work is getting worse. Delays in extending unemployment benefits across the US that expired on 26 December 2020 cost unemployed workers $17.6bn in lost benefits in the month of January 2021, according to an analysis conducted by the Century Foundation.
Another delay is possible as pandemic unemployment benefits are set to begin expiring again for millions of Americans starting on 14 March if Congress doesn’t act to extend them in time. Millions who have relied on unemployment benefits for the past year of the pandemic may also be faced with expensive tax bills in April on their unemployment income.
Sherill Lewis of Fort Collins, Colorado worked as a server at the same restaurant for 12 years before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020.
Since her unemployment funds expired on 26 December, she has yet to see benefits restart along with many other jobless workers in Colorado. She also didn’t receive the last federal stimulus check of $600.
“I’ve had to borrow money. I’m into debt with my credit cards. It’s been horrible,” said Lewis.
New Jersey has taken several weeks to restart benefits for 75,000 unemployed workers in the state whose benefits had expired in December 2020, but has yet to restart benefits for many still unemployed. The state’s labor department also noted about 20,000 claimants experience holds to their claims every week after answering a question wrong on their weekly claim.
Jackie Warner of Lakewood, New Jersey, lost her position in payroll when the pandemic started in March 2020. It took until May to start receiving benefits, and she hasn’t received anything since her pandemic benefits expired in December 2020.
“This has been an awful time for many of us. When we call the Reemployment Center we cannot get through on the phones. There is a message that states to call back the next day. The next day never comes,” said Warner. “It’s still a mess.”
The Biden administration’s $1.9tn Covid relief plan passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Saturday. It would pay $1,400 to struggling Americans if it passes in the Senate. But for those struggling now, there is little relief.
Warner has applied for dozens of jobs around her area through the pandemic, with no luck, while she has no income because her unemployment benefits have yet to restart.
“I’ve lost my health insurance; my car is in desperate need of repairs and I do not have money to buy food,” added Warner.“