Tired of waiting for unemployment benefits, Missourians seek answers
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Division of Employment Security is handling a record number of unemployment claims since COVID-19 forced a lot of Missourians out of work. While the Department is working to meet the demand, a large number of claimants haven’t received correspondence or payments in months since they initially filed.
William Woods student Caitlin Howard filed for regular unemployment benefits after her job furloughed all employees. Howard said she accidentally checked the box for pension while filling out the form. After ten weeks of appeals, letters and phone calls, she received a “massive” amount of backpay.
“Unfortunately, all the money that I saved up over my four year college because I had to for my master's degree, I ended up having to use it instead while waiting for my benefits to come in,” Howard said. “I had over $8,000 in that account. That's money I don't touch at all.”
In 2019, the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported 183,823 claims for the entire year.
“Prior to the pandemic, our typical initial claims volume this time of year would have been 3,000 initial claims a week,” Department of Labor spokesperson Delores Rose said in a statement sent to KOMU. “During the first three weeks of the pandemic, we received more initial claims than during the entirety of 2019.”
Roger Jones, creator of the Protest Missouri Labor Facebook group, said his family is about to lose their home and only vehicle. He’s been waiting 13 weeks for unemployment payments and the only relief he received during that time was a stimulus check.
“As of right now, they owe me in the neighborhood of $8,700 in back pay and it almost seems like I went my entire claim period with nothing,” he said. “They have to start treating us like people and get us paid our benefits that we deserve.”
There are several types of assistance and unemployment benefits people can request. Eligible claimants can receive regular unemployment benefits, disaster unemployment assistance or pandemic unemployment assistance.
According to the Department of Labor's website, disaster unemployment assistance is a program which provides temporary income to eligible individuals who became unemployed as a result of a major disaster. States are permitted to provide Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to individuals who are self-employed, seeking part-time employment, or who otherwise would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation. To qualify for PUA benefits, you must not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits and be unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of certain health or economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regular unemployment benefits are payments to claimants with respect to their unemployment under any state unemployment compensation law. PUA and DUA are federally funded by the government, regular UI is paid through state unemployment taxes by employers.
Thousands of unemployed individuals expressed their concerns and experiences with delayed benefits and assistance in a Facebook group called MO Unemployment: Pandemic Help.
A DOLIR spokesperson sent KOMU answers to our questions and theirs.
Q.) How did the state plan for and react to the surge in unemployment claims?
A.) We utilized cross-trained staff from all program areas within the Department (DES is just one of the Divisions), received assistance from other state agencies and hired temporary staff all while transitioning our employees to work remotely in order to continue to serve those needing our assistance. There was no historical precedence that contemplated three new federal programs, implemented in less than a month, but Missouri did just that.
Q.) Why have other states been able to adjust and implement changes to pay unemployment benefits, but not Missouri?
A.) Missouri has paid over $2.2 Billion in unemployment benefits since March. Hundreds of thousands of claimants are getting paid each week. Missouri began processing payments for the $600 federal supplement within a week of having received guidance from the United States DOL. Missouri was also one of the first ten states to set up and pay PUA claimants, months before other states. In fact, Missouri set up and began paying under all three new federal programs in less than a month from receiving guidance. If issues exist that require investigation of eligibility requirements, then it can take 4-6 weeks for that investigation to be completed during normal times. Investigations now can take longer due to various reasons, including the volume of claims requiring adjudication and delayed responses from claimants, employers and other third parties.
Q.) The customer call line says the unemployment office has expanded their hours of operation and staff, but why hasn’t that been extended past 5pm?
A.) Call lines have not been extended past 5pm, but the staff is working after hours and on weekends and holidays adjudicating claims so that payments can be issued. Adjudication, the application of the law to make determinations on the qualification for unemployment, is an essential part of the process.
Q.) For those who are self-employed, how is filing and approval for any assistance different?
A.) PUA is set-up inside the unemployment system but is a federal assistance program. The self-employed would first have to file a regular UI claim and be found ineligible to be able to file for a PUA claim per USDOL guidelines. To file for a PUA claim, individuals self-certify that they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to one of a number of COVID-related reasons outlined (see labor.mo.gov/coronavirus, question #11). There is no protest period on a PUA claim, and individuals self-certify answers. To be eligible for a higher weekly benefit amount, individuals provide 2019 proof of earnings unlike regular UI, where earnings are already reported to us. The maximum benefit amount is $320 a week, just as regular UI. Questions asked weekly of PUA claimants are slightly different than those receiving regular UI based on federal guidelines.
Q.) Why is Missouri taking their time to get everyone’s issues resolved?
A.) In addition to the historic volume of claims, moving staff to work remotely in order to be able to continue to serve and the influx of claims like PUA that were not previously part of the unemployment system, the Department is working as quickly and as accurately as possible under these conditions to prevent errors in processing including overpayments which would have to be repaid.
Any situation that requires a determination to be made regarding eligibility to receive benefits is called an “issue.” An issue can take on average 4-6 weeks to be completed during normal times.
Q.) Why do I have an issue on file for months with no emails, calls, or letters?
A.) The unprecedented volume of claims and the complexity of an issue can cause delays in processing. Contact is made or correspondence is sent when a change of status occurs.
Q.) Why isn’t the call back feature calling me?
A.) We’re unaware of issues preventing a callback. We are working on improvements that will allow greater flexibilities with callbacks.
Q.) How long does it take to appeal a denied claim?
A.) Claimants have up to 30 days in which to file an appeal. If they wish to appeal, they should continue to request payments weekly so that if they win on appeal, they can be paid for all eligible weeks. There are up to three levels of appeal, so the timing depends on the level. Most low level appeals are heard within 45 days.
Q.) What’s the best way to get in touch with a representative from the claims office?