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Many people around the country are still waiting weeks, sometimes months, for unemployment benefits. John Sommers II/Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

When it comes to filing for unemployment, here’s what you can control

Samantha Fields Sep 30, 2020
Many people around the country are still waiting weeks, sometimes months, for unemployment benefits. John Sommers II/Getty Images

Nearly seven months into the pandemic, states are still working their way through massive backlogs of unemployment claims and people are still waiting weeks, sometimes months, for benefits. 

The delays are largely due to the sheer volume of claims that have been flooding underfunded, understaffed unemployment offices since mid-March. That, and heightened concerns about fraud.

“States have been really focused on over payments and on fraud detection, and that has taken precedence over paying benefits quickly,” said Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project

That means any little error or discrepancy on an application, however minor, can trigger an investigation and a manual review, “and that’s going to delay your benefits,” said Samantha Newman, a paralegal at Legal Services NYC

Once that happens, it can be next to impossible to figure out what the problem is and clear it up quickly. And with the number of first-time claims still topping a million every week, Evermore said, “this looks like a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.”

So if you’re about to apply for unemployment and want to do everything in your power to avoid getting caught in the backlog, or you’ve already applied and have been waiting a long time for benefits, here are a few things to know. 

Tips for applying for unemployment

Be meticulous. Double and triple check everything on your application, from the spelling of your name to your Social Security number to your work history.

It’s worth checking with your employer, too, to be sure the information they’re providing to the state matches what’s on your claim. 

“The biggest thing that holds benefits is a mismatch of information,” Evermore said. “If the spelling of your name on your application doesn’t match the spelling of your name that your employer provides, or there’s a mismatch in Social Security number or any of that kind of information, that will hold up a benefit.”

Another thing that can hold up a benefit is if you answer any of the questions incorrectly — and a lot of people do, according to Evermore and Newman. 

There are a number of questions on the application, especially for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, “that especially in the beginning of the pandemic were confusing a lot of people,” Newman said. “And they’d have to kind of backtrack and let Department of Labor know, ‘I made a mistake, I answered in the wrong way.’”

Which, as with other kinds of errors, can lead to significant delays.

So if you’re at all confused about what a question is asking, or how to answer it, don’t guess — ask someone.

“Take your time filling out the application,” Evermore said. “If you have any questions, contact somebody like Legal Aid or your state representatives and find out if there is a better or worse way to answer this question.”

It can also be worth seeking clarification on sites like Reddit or Facebook, she said. “If you look for your state, you can actually connect with other people who’ve been through the system and can help you navigate the particular complications in your state system.”

And it sounds obvious, but whatever you do, don’t lose your password. You’ll need it both to access your application and to file your weekly claims, and in most states there is no way to easily reset your password online if you forget it. 

“A lot of times you have to call in and reach a live person and tell them that you need your password reset, and then they will put your password in an envelope in the mail and send it to you,” Evermore said.

If your benefits are delayed

“The part that I think is just the most disheartening is that by far, I would say like 95% of the people that I’ve talked to really have done all of the right things,” said Andra Kranzler, an attorney with the Unemployment Law Project and Sheridan Law Firm.

So what do you do if that’s you? 

It varies by state. “In New York, we were finding that it was helpful for people to tweet the state agency,” Evermore said. 

In most cases, though, the two best options are to reach out to an attorney and contact your state representatives. 

“Every state legislator I know has developed an incredible expertise in unemployment insurance in the last six months,” Evermore said. “They’ve been able to figure out how to help people get through the system.”

Contacting Legal Aid or another pro bono legal services organization can also make a big difference, if you’re struggling to reach the state unemployment office and resolve your claim on your own.

“We’re always happy to advise, even if we can’t represent,” Newman said. “And just make sure you feel equipped for moving forward on your claim or any kind of hearing you have.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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