Navigating the online unemployment line
With an unprecedented rise in unemployment over the past few weeks, many Americans are struggling to figure out where to turn. You may be in the same boat. Changes to unemployment regulations and the passage of the CARES Act will offer some heartening relief, but there are still some difficult challenges and questions that lie ahead. This includes knowing when workers will see any extra money in their unemployment checks. Hopefully, the information here can help give you some perspective on what you can expect.
Not all unemployment systems are the same
Even though unemployment is regulated by the federal government, most of what happens is dictated by individual states. So, this outbreak is revealing a lot of inconsistencies and limitations in different places. A sudden high demand for unemployment services has made it very difficult to get through on websites and on the phone. Many systems are antiquated and were not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude. “The whole process is a mess,” says Marcelo Ramirez, a small business owner in New York. “My wife was recently laid off, and as a sole proprietor, I haven’t been able to work for over a month. So, we’ve both been trying to take advantage of what’s being offered. The difficulty has been getting through."
Marcelo’s experience has been frustrating to say the least – it took him three to four days to complete his application online. “The strain on the system is overwhelming, and the unemployment site kept crashing on me,” he said. Unfortunately, he had to follow up by phone, and that was just as bad. It took him three days of calling before he connected, and then had to wait an hour to speak to a representative. But there was a bright spot. “Even with all these people calling in, the woman I spoke to was really (and surprisingly) pleasant and helpful. So that was nice.”
Different types of workers, different results
The expanded federal and state unemployment measures and CARES Act ensure that a lot more people are eligible than before due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is great news for freelancers and people who work for themselves. It’s a trickier process though.
Many recently laid off full-time employees (W2) are getting through easier because the system is set up to provide for them. Self-employed folks who normally don’t qualify for unemployment, but now qualify under the CARES Act, are having a different experience. “My company had a Zoom meeting where we heard from someone at the Department of Labor and Industry,” said Kelly Frame, a realtor in Pennsylvania. “They pretty much told us not to apply at this time, because we’d just be denied. The benefits for the self-employed really won’t be ready for another month.” Pennsylvania and other states are still working out the details of their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. “That’s not exactly easy on the wallet,” Ms. Frame added. Meanwhile, several states are encouraging people to start the application process anyway.
What you can do to get through
Be patient – I know this is the hardest thing to do, but the thousands of people trying to apply online are like pushing a bowling ball through a garden hose. So, set your expectations low and hopefully, you’ll be surprised. In fact, there are some people who have had a reasonable experience. And do your best to be kind to staff who work in unemployment services. They are doing their best.
Be informed before applying – all states have their unemployment requirements listed for people to find. You can find your state’s requirements here.
The state sites and information vary widely in ease of use, and functionality – and you are required to use the system of the state you work in. Another thing to keep in mind, the benefit amounts vary a lot too, and adjoining states will have very different payouts. As Marcelo stated, “Relatives of mine in New Jersey might get more than my wife cause the maximum benefit per week in New Jersey is $713 versus only $504 in New York.”
Be prepared when applying – once you know what you need to apply, gather that information together and have it ready when you either log on or call your state’s unemployment agency. Since you are competing with others for bandwidth to finish a drawn-out application, it pays to not have to go find something and lose your spot.
Some states are suggesting that you apply or call at specific times, and there are also ideal times when there is less traffic to compete with. Check your state site to learn more.
- Be aware you might be a special case – Workers who fall under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – like contract, self-employed and gig workers – may have to provide more documentation and follow a different process. As Marcelo found out, he can’t submit his documents online in New York. “Once I followed up on my application, I was told I had to fax in my 1099s and paystubs,” which amounts to about 25 pages. “I couldn’t upload it or email it to anyone, because the system isn’t set up for that. And I was advised that sending things by regular mail would mean I’d get paid a lot later.” Not having a fax machine or a landline phone, Marcelo had to go find help to submit his forms. “It’s not really a great thing to have to do when you’re supposed to be social distancing. And I can see it now – somewhere – a lonely fax machine is trying to spit out thousands of people’s papers.” he chuckled.
If this sounds new or familiar to you, just remember you are definitely not alone. This is a tough and unexpected process for many. So, be sure to find out the details for unemployment in the state where you work, and please share your experience with others that could use your insight in our #unemployment topic. And if you have other questions or concerns you can always reach out to others in the Jobcase community.
I have exhausted my Illinois unemployment benefits in December 2019. Because of the Corona virus no one is hiring. I was told that I am entitled to a benefit extension. Do I have to file a new claim because when I went into my account it told me that I have exhausted my benefits. Help please!
Didn't help at all
Yes, when your benefits run out, after 26 weeks, you do need to file a new claim. That' s what I need to do myself. But the good news, I heard they extended it to -39- wks., because of the crisis.