Millions of Americans unemployed because of COVID-19 are still waiting on unemployment money

Rick Jervis
 
| USA TODAY

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COVID-19: Who is unemployed? The unemployment rate explained

Job loss numbers skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not everyone was counted as unemployed. Here’s how the unemployment rate is measured.

Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

Gianna Cummings has canceled doctor appointments to save money on gas, borrowed money from an aunt and applied for food stamps to help feed her four children, ages four weeks to 10 years old.

A substitute teacher from Sumter County, Georgia, Cummings, 25, lost her job early in the coronavirus pandemic. She’s applied for unemployment benefits but hasn’t received any money yet. If the unemployment checks don’t show up soon, she’ll likely cancel Christmas.

“It’s sad that so many people need this assistance and it’s so hard to get it,” she said. “It’s been very difficult. It’s rough.”

Cummings joins millions of workers in the U.S. who filed a claim for unemployment insurance benefits and never received a payment or even a reply since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as the virus forced people to stay home, shuttered businesses and sent millions of Americans into unemployment. Nine months into the pandemic, lack of unemployment checks have forced people to move out of their homes, borrow money from friends and family, and deplete savings.

The coronavirus pandemic unleashed record levels of joblessness in America. The unemployment rate in April – 14.7% – was the highest it’s been since the federal government began collecting the data in 1948, according to a report this month by the Congressional Research Service. Workers of color were hit the hardest, with Black Americans registering 16.7% unemployment in April, compared to 14.2% for white workers, and 18.9% for Hispanic workers that month, according to the report. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also placed a moratorium on evictions but that’s set to expire Dec. 31, leaving potentially millions of people on the streets. 

Congress is expected to pass this week a roughly $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus deal featuring another round of stimulus checks and other much-needed benefits, including a boost to unemployment insurance benefits. 

If Congress doesn’t act, federal unemployment benefits are set to expire by the end of December, leaving an estimated 12 million people without any source of income.

None of these factors make it easier for the millions of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits months ago but never received a reply or payment.

The U.S government doesn’t keep clear tallies of workers who don’t receive unemployment benefits or a denial. But the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank that tracks the payments, estimates that between 3 million and 7 million people who qualify for unemployment never received a rejection letter or payment. Around 50 million people have applied for the benefits since the start of the pandemic.

Reasons for the unpaid benefits include outdated systems, robust protection against fraud and the sheer volume of requests that have overwhelmed state systems, said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Before the pandemic, states processed around 200,000 requests a week for unemployment benefits, he said. In a recession, that number could climb to 300,000 to 400,000 a week. Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S has seen about 1 million claims a week, far more than any time in recent memory.

“It was definitely a perfect storm,” Stettner said. “A system that wasn’t in good shape was being flooded with so many claims. It was much worse than anything we’ve ever experienced.”

Unemployment insurance benefits are distributed by individual states using funds administered by the federal government. Federal assistance programs, like the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, which offered $600 a week to qualifying claimants, were also distributed by states. Workers who weren’t able to access unemployment benefits through their states likely also missed out on federal assistance, Stettner said.

Stephanie Freed and Grant McDonald were independent contractors in the live entertainment industry living in New York City. When the pandemic hit, they both lost all their business. As they struggled to navigate the state’s unemployment benefits system, they decided to create a website – www.ExtendPUA.org – as a clearinghouse of information to help other out-of-work people.  

Since creating the site in July, they’ve met virtually with over 30 U.S. senators or their staffs, urging them to extend federal assistance and help states better distribute benefits, and reached out to 1.2 million users on their website and social media sites.

“Our biggest concern was that there weren’t lobbyists for pandemic unemployed workers,” said Freed, 32, who had to give up her New York apartment and move in with her parents. “We had to do it ourselves.”

A survey they conducted earlier this month of 1,300 of their website’s users revealed that nearly 10% of respondents never received any unemployment payments even though they applied.

“It’s a huge number,” McDonald said. “To think that there’s people surviving on nothing, it’s terrifying.”

Earlier this year, Dotti Ohlman, 54, of Tucson, Arizona, was busy working as a dental hygienist, fitness instructor and sales rep for a company that organized conventions. When the pandemic hit, she lost all her jobs.

She applied for unemployment benefits and began receiving $117 a week in May, plus a federal bonus of $600 a week. In July, the federal assistance expired. Then, in September, the unemployment payments abruptly stopped. There were no letters or explanations, she said.

Ohlman manned the phone for several hours a day, trying to connect with someone at the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which distributes the funds, but only got busy signals or recorded messages asking her to try back later. After weeks of trying, she finally got through to a staffer who informed her she needed to scan and send a copy of her driver’s license, to prove her identity.

The unemployment payments resumed in mid-December but 12 weeks of no income nearly gutted her finances, she said. She had to cash out a small Roth IRA she had from a previous job to make ends meet and will be moving out of her house and into a friend’s garage next month. Ohlman said she has tried looking for a job but has yet to find one. Meanwhile, the financial stress has lapsed her into depression.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she said. “I’m unraveling.”

As the virus spread through California in March and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued one of the country’s first stay-at-home orders, state officials braced for a surge in unemployment requests. Requests for the benefits in California soared from an average of about 41,000 a week last year to 336,805 in March — a more 700% increase. 

The backlog for unemployment benefits grew so bad that Newsom assigned a task force to specifically look into the logjam at the Employment Development Department, which manages unemployment benefits. It found an antiquated system struggling with the sheer surge in volume while trying to shut out fraudsters.

International cybercriminal groups also targeted the state, posing as claimants and disrupting the system for weeks at a time. One of the criminal groups targeting California and other states was a fraud ring known as Scattered Canary, which used stolen social security numbers to file thousands of false claims.

Last month, a group of district attorneys detailed a separate fraud scheme involving California’s prisons and jails that brought up to $1 billion in fraudulent unemployment payouts to inmates and their criminal accomplices.

“There’s that fine line of constant tension … between quick payments and stopping fraud,” California Labor Secretary Julie Su said in an interview with USA TODAY. “We’re constantly trying to walk a line that allows us to do both and do both well.”

Su said her department has implemented many of the task force’s recommendations, including installing updated identification software, known as “ID.me,” to more quickly and securely verify claimants, and establish an advocate inside the department to represent claimants.

“There is a lot of work to do,” Su said. “We’re committed to fixing what’s broken.”

Stettner, of the Century Foundation, said the federal government could help by offering states technology, expertise and funding to secure unemployment systems and devising a single national system of unemployment benefits, rather than leaving it up to individual states.

Streamlining unemployment payments would not only help millions of Americans survive the pandemic but also fuels the economy, he said.

“We haven’t let the economy spiral out. We’ve kept consumer spending strong,” Stettner said. “A big part of that is unemployment benefits.”

Meanwhile, Cummings, the out-of-work Georgia substitute teacher, said she will continue to stretch out the food in her refrigerator and ask friends and family members for handouts to make ends meet. She’s applied to the local Salvation Army to help her pay her $400 monthly rent.

Her grade-school-aged kids are attending remote classes from home, so she can’t leave them to find a job. Even if she did, the prospects of finding a new job in her area right now aren’t good, she said.

If the unemployment checks don’t arrive soon, she won’t have enough money to buy gifts or a Christmas tree for her children, Cummings said. She’s already talked to them about that possibility and urged them to stay positive — and hopeful.

“I tell them to count their blessings,” she said. “It’s a blessing to have a roof over our head, to have water, to have our lights on. We have to appreciate the things we do have.”

Reach Jervis at rjervis@usatoday.com, or follow him on Twitter at: @MrRJervis.

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