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COVID & Unemployment

For state unemployment offices, the last year has been rough

Samantha Fields Feb 18, 2021
Heard on:
courtneyk via Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

For state unemployment offices, the last year has been rough

Samantha Fields Feb 18, 2021
Heard on:
courtneyk via Getty Images

The year or so since the pandemic began has been a stressful and overwhelming one for millions of people who’ve lost their jobs. It’s also been an intense one for the people whose job it is to process unemployment benefits.

The week before the pandemic hit, there were just 634 initial claims for unemployment benefits in the whole state of Maine.

“The week the pandemic hit, we had 21,000,” said Laura Fortman, the commissioner of labor in Maine. “The following week, there were over 30,000 initial claims.”

Fortman also held that job during the Great Recession.

“And I thought that that was the worst thing we would ever go through,” she said. “And there was absolutely no comparison.”

When the pandemic started, Fortman said, there were only 13 people on staff taking unemployment calls.

“We did everything that we could to quickly shift staff within our department,” she said.

They brought in staff from other departments, too, and hired a call center. Within a few weeks, about 100 people were on the job.

“But again, these were not folks who had any unemployment insurance experience,” Fortman said.

And the claims just kept coming.

“It’s been tough, right? It’s stressful,” said Phil Spesshardt, acting unemployment insurance director in Colorado. “Every day is a fire, trying to put out a million fires.”

Spesshardt said that even now, a year into the pandemic, it hasn’t gotten much easier.

“Every day it’s answering questions or trying to answer questions from a huge number of individuals trying to get in to get assistance, and not always being able to provide them with good news,” Spesshardt said.

Lately there’s actually been a lot of bad news. More than 230,000 people in Colorado had their unemployment benefits lapse in December. That happened because, Spesshardt said, Congress and former President Donald Trump waited until the last minute to extend them, and then they tweaked some of the rules.

“So now you have to go in and adjust all that programming, make sure it’s running appropriately, before you can release it for individuals to start receiving benefits. Those all take time,” Spesshardt said.

In Colorado, some people whose benefits lapsed in December still aren’t getting anything, even though they’re eligible.

“And those individuals, understandably, right now are very frustrated. Very, very frustrated,” Spesshardt said.

And, Spesshardt is concerned that all of this might happen again in a few weeks, because those benefits Congress extended in December are set to expire in mid-March.

Fortman is hoping Congress passes something soon.

“I’m looking at a calendar here, and I’d say the end of the month would be a really good date to have any new extensions in place,” she said.

That would give states enough time to keep benefits flowing.

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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