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Hundreds of people waited in long lines in Kentucky in June for help with their unemployment claims, months after they had initially tried to file. John Sommers II/Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

Many are still waiting for unemployment, months later

Samantha Fields Sep 25, 2020
Hundreds of people waited in long lines in Kentucky in June for help with their unemployment claims, months after they had initially tried to file. John Sommers II/Getty Images

It has been more than six months since Vanessa Lane got the call that would upend her life: the vineyard where she worked in Washington state was closing down temporarily because of COVID-19, and she was being laid off.

The very next day, March 18, she filed for unemployment. All this time later, she’s still waiting. She has yet to receive a single check.

“That meant leaving the place where I was living, because I couldn’t pay rent. It meant leaving the town that I was living in, because there was no other job to support me. It meant borrowing money from friends and family in order to get by,” Lane said. 

There is no way to know exactly how many people have been waiting for months and are still not getting unemployment, because states do not have a good system in place for tracking that kind of data, according to Andrew Stettner of The Century Foundation. But by his own calculations, only about 60% of people who have applied for benefits are currently receiving them. That means there are millions still waiting. 

“This delay in unemployment has been just a huge characteristic of this pandemic recession,” Stettner said. “People thought they could count on a prompt payment, they didn’t get a prompt payment, and they couldn’t get prompt information. So it’s been very frustrating.”

Many have had claims denied and are trying to appeal. Others have been flagged for fraud, or had trouble submitting clarifying documents on buggy websites. Some haven’t heard anything at all.

For those who have been approved and are getting unemployment, the average wait time has been 6 or 7 weeks — well above the standard 2 to 3 weeks — even now, months into the pandemic.

The biggest delays have been in states that have historically been the most restrictive when it comes to unemployment benefits, like Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, and states that have had a particularly high volume of claims, like Kentucky, Washington and California, Stettner said, “but it’s really happening across the country.”

Just this week, California announced that it would stop accepting new unemployment applications for two weeks, until Oct. 5, to work on clearing a backlog of more than 1.5 million claims, many of which have been pending for months. Even with the pause, the state doesn’t expect to resolve all of those cases until January. And 10,000 new claims are coming in every day. 

There have also been a number of lawsuits over the delays in different states, including Oregon, Nevada and Washington state.

For many of those who have now gone months without a paycheck or unemployment, things are dire. This is a country where 40% of people don’t have enough in savings to cover an unexpected $250 expense, and 60% don’t have enough to cover a thousand dollar expense.

“You may have savings enough to get through a few weeks, you may be able to manage by relying on relatives for a few more weeks. But when it gets to 12 weeks and 16 weeks and 20 weeks and longer, that’s what we’ve been seeing, very few people have the resources to get beyond that,” said Anne Paxton, an attorney and policy director for the Unemployment Law Project. “It’s just this surge of despair that we’re seeing.”

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, there have been long lines at food banks. Enrollment in SNAP has surged. As the months have dragged on, Paxton has seen a growing number of people who are waiting for unemployment benefits become homeless. Others are on the verge. 

Lane thinks all the time about how easily that could have been her. 

“I can walk down two blocks from my home and see several homeless people up and down the street,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

It’s not hard for Lane to imagine herself in that position. She has been there before. So have her mom, her brother and sister, her uncle. She knows how easily it can happen. 

That’s a big part of why she ended up leaving the small town she loved to move to Portland, Oregon, when her unemployment benefits didn’t come through — to have a better chance at finding a new job. She did find a new job in July, as a paralegal, but she’s still behind on bills from the nearly four months she went with no income. 

“I’m still having to deal with bill collectors,” she said. “You know, ‘can I extend my payment out? Can I skip a payment? Can you take off the interest charges? Can you work with me?’ I’m still at that point, even though I’ve been working now for a few months.”

Because of that, Lane is still fighting for those four months of back payments. Since March, she estimates she’s spent upwards of 20 hours a week, every week, making calls to the unemployment office, sitting on hold, trying to reach someone, anyone, to figure out what’s going on. 

At the Unemployment Law Project, Paxton hears stories like this every day. 

“We have a lot of individual cases where it’s just hardship stacked upon hardship. But I think on top of that, it’s the indignity of the way they’ve been treated in terms of the Employment Security System,” Paxton said. “A great way to destroy a benefit system is to destroy people’s confidence.”

Lane never imagined, when she got laid off, that something like this could happen. 

“I’m 50 next month, I’ve been working since I was 16, I’ve been paying my taxes, I’m a good citizen,” she said. “This is money that is my money that I should have. I shouldn’t be put in this situation. This department is there to help people.”

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