When it comes to accessing unemployment benefits during the pandemic, one expert says many Americans have become desperate.
Unemployed people are “at their wits' end,” says Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. She's also a volunteer member of President-Elect Joe Biden's transition review team for the Labor Department.
“I'm getting letters from people who are living in a car somewhere, living off $125 a week with children. They send me pictures of their children,” she says. “I've gotten letters about people who are contemplating suicide so that their kids can get their pension and insurance money.”
She does say, however, that the “difficult system” has been a lifeline for millions during an exceptionally tough year. The pandemic has made many state systems’ shortcomings obvious, she says.
Evermore has been helping people out of work advocate for themselves throughout the pandemic. Many of the folks she works with are concerned about what’s geared toward unemployed people in the latest coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.
There are a few specifics that target unemployment in the bill, she says, including an additional 11 weeks of benefits for people receiving the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, whether they qualify for regular unemployment benefits or not.
Eleven more weeks of benefits will be made available to those who are in pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) or the parallel program for people who don’t qualify for regular unemployment insurance.
No matter what type of unemployment insurance benefit you are currently receiving, an additional $300 a week will be given out for the next 11 weeks, she says.
“And on top of that, there's another $100 a week for people who are making a very small amount of unemployment insurance but would have gotten a bigger pandemic unemployment assistance amount if they hadn't qualified for regular unemployment insurance,” she says.
President Trump signed the relief bill on Sunday instead of Saturday, which was the deadline before two programs — PUA and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation — would expire. This could have cost millions of unemployed folks at least a week of benefits, but Evermore says there’s good news: Reports have stated the Labor Department has discovered a way to make sure the gap week is covered.
There will be a delay in when unemployed people actually see those benefits since outdated computer systems in some states will experience a lag in the new programming, she says.
States are still working on kinks in their unemployment systems, one of them being overpayment during the pandemic. Some people filing for unemployment may have made an error during the filing process, while some states are claiming they mistakenly overpaid some unemployed people and are now asking them to return that money.
Lyft and Uber driver Mark Muldoon of Vancouver, Washington, says in July, he received a letter from the state saying he owed them $13,000 due to overpayment. He says he “freaked out” then put together an appeal.
About a week later, Muldoon got a call from a state worker saying it was a “big screw up.” He’s since been able to clear up the matter but says he knows other ride-share drivers who are going through the same experience.
Evermore predicts this will become “a massive problem.” PUA is a brand new entity under the CARES Act, she explains, set up with new employees and used by many Americans who have never experienced unemployment before. Mistakes were bound to occur, she says.
“States got letters over the summer that they were not implementing PUA correctly and they had to ask clients for a lot more information otherwise those clients would be deemed overpaid. And that information is maybe not something that people could provide,” she says. “I am expecting millions of people to get a notice that they've been flagged for overpayment.”
To circumvent any problems, Evermore says if flagged, you should appeal like Muldoon did. If it was a genuine mistake, she says an appeal may erase the overpayments while still allowing you to keep receiving benefits.
Plus, the new relief package does include a waiver so states have the option to forgive overpayments that were honest mistakes “for reasons of equity and good conscience,” she says.
Evermore stresses the importance of following the rules each unemployment agency sets forth. She says to be careful to continue to certify “that you’re able, available and actively seeking work” on your state’s either weekly or bi-weekly basis.
“Even if work search requirements are waived, you still have to report that you'd like a job if somebody offered you one,” she says.
Early on in the pandemic, swathes of Americans were struggling to get answers about their unemployment claims. Evermore says many states have reacted by setting up call-in centers, automatic callbacks and online live chats. The initial volume of needed assistance hasn’t been as dire as it was earlier this year, she says.
In 2021, Evermore says top priorities need to include updating the unemployment insurance system. If it were up to her, she’d federalize the current system to address inequalities across state lines.
“If you look at Mississippi or Louisiana, with average benefits around $213 a week, that's just not sufficient,” she says. “It only replaces a third of income in some places, whereas others, it replaces half of income.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
This segment aired on December 30, 2020.