'My savings ran out a month into this': Workers laid off because of coronavirus are waiting months to get unemployment benefits, even as the economy reopens

© Jason Kempin/Getty Images   Jason Kempin/Getty Images

By Carmen Reinicke, Business Insider

  • Many of the millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment are experiencing delays in getting approved for benefits and actually receiving them.
  • At the end of June, 66% of those who filed initial claims for unemployment insurance were waiting to receive benefits, according to a One Fair Wage study.
  • Months of missed income can be devastating for Americans and lead them to pull back on spending, threatening the US economic recovery.

Applying for unemployment insurance was one of the first things Gwyneth Duesbery did when she lost her hostess job in Grand Rapids, Michigan in March as the state went into lockdown to contain coronavirus.

She was initially denied after putting in the wrong certification number, and spent weeks calling the state unemployment office attempting to fix it. Eventually, she was able to file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the expanded benefits provided through the CARES Act.

Duesbery returned to work in early June without seeing a single check from unemployment insurance, about three months after she first applied. While she worried about the potential health implications of going back to work, she couldn't go longer without a paycheck, she said.

"My savings ran out a month into this," Duesbery told Business Insider. At the end of June — about three weeks after Duesbery returned to work — she finally received the unemployment benefits she was owed, she said.

The US went into sweeping lockdowns in mid-March to contain the spread of coronavirus, putting millions out of work in just weeks, with the most job losses seen in the leisure and hospitality industry. While the US economy has added back some lost jobs since states began to reopen, the unemployment rate is still 11.1%.

Congress and the Trump administration passed sweeping stimulus including expanded unemployment benefits to help support US consumers and businesses through the lockdown and ensuing pandemic recession. But, even months after the lockdowns first hit, many workers that have applied for unemployment benefits are still waiting for checks.

As states reopen, some recalled workers are feeling pressure to return to their jobs even though they may be putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus.

"Basically people are being made to choose between their lives and their livelihoods," said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage.

Waiting for help 

At the end of May, 44% of unemployment applicants were waiting for benefits, according to a One Fair Wage study that looked at continuing claims versus initial claims, or people receiving benefits versus applications for them. That figure climbed to 66% in June.

To be sure, total aggregate claims may be elevated by states that have required some unemployed workers to apply more than once for different programs, or by people applying that are not eligible for benefits. And, falling continued claims is hopefully a sign that people are moving off of unemployment and back into jobs.

Still, overwhelmed state unemployment offices inundated with claims have struggled to process them fast enough, leading to long wait times to receive benefits.

In Michigan, where Duesbery works, the more than 2.4 million workers that have filed for state and federal benefits since March 15 caused a backlog that took months to complete, according to the state's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

It took the Michigan unemployment insurance agency until July 6 to make a determination on eligible unpaid claims filed between March 15 and May 1, it said in a statement. Thus far, it has paid or approved 97% of eligible workers for benefits, and there are still nearly 39,000 unpaid claims to be resolved and 20,000 being held for other reasons.

The state will continue to clear its backlog and has a goal of completing all claims filed before June 1 by July 20.

"While there is only a small percentage of eligible workers who have yet to be paid, we know that is no consolation to the thousands of claimants who are frustrated, desperate and owed the benefits they were promised," Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray said in a statement.

Other states have also grappled with backlogs. In Wisconsin, nearly 13% of claims for unemployment haven't been processed as of July 11.

"A good measure of whether or not a state has met its timeliness requirements under the law is they should process most benefits within two or three weeks," Michele Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, told Business Insider. "Clearly that hasn't been happening."

Restaurant workers, who in many states don't make minimum wage, faced additional obstacles in applying for UI.  While 44% of all workers were waiting for benefits in May, One Fair Wage found that for restaurant workers, 60% were still waiting for unemployment benefits.

Without tips, some don't meet state requirements for unemployment benefits and have to reapply for other programs such as PUA, in which states have also struggled to process claims. In Nevada, the state had processed only 74% of 106,667 eligible PUA claims by June 19, The Washington Post reported.

The impact of months of lost income

Any amount of lost income is damaging to individuals and their families. It could also stall the economic recovery from the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression.

Many Americans didn't come into the pandemic recession on stable footing. A study by the Federal Reserve from before the pandemic crisis found that 37% of American adults could not easily cover an unexpected $400 expense.

It took Emma Craig, a singer at a supper club in New York City, about two months from filing for unemployment insurance to start receiving benefits, she told Business Insider. In the meantime, she stopped all discretionary spending, found some work doing entertainment for corporate events online, and spent her stimulus check on rent.

She's still behind on rent and other bills because of the delay, and is not yet sure when she'll be able to return to work in person.

"I made it through, I had no other option," said Craig. "There was more than once that I had less than $100 in my bank account."

The expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks were meant to make laid-off workers whole and support the economy until it could reopen. But, if the money doesn't make it to families, it won't have the intended effect of keeping the economy afloat.

In addition, the additional $600 in weekly benefits is set to expire at the end of July, meaning that the millions of Americans that are receiving unemployment insurance could suddenly be getting much less money each week.

"That is a recipe for a lot of human suffering," said Evermore from the NELP, adding that without the benefit, some people will stop being able to buy groceries and pay their rent.

"It's going to have a macroeconomic effect," she said.

See more at: Business Insider

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Career Magazine: 'My savings ran out a month into this': Workers laid off because of coronavirus are waiting months to get unemployment benefits, even as the economy reopens
'My savings ran out a month into this': Workers laid off because of coronavirus are waiting months to get unemployment benefits, even as the economy reopens
"Basically people are being made to choose between their lives and their livelihoods," said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage.
Career Magazine
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