Antiquated computer systems, unprecedented volume during the pandemic and understaffed offices have left Americans on hold for months.
(InvestigateTV) – When Annette Bellard evacuated her home due to Hurricane Laura in August, she said she had only $10 to get where she needed to go. The evacuation marked nearly two months without an unemployment check, which Bellard had been receiving up until she reported getting $110.08 in holiday pay from her employer.
The checks stopped abruptly, and after multiple calls and emails, she cannot get an answer from the state on when, or if, she will begin receiving unemployment checks again.
Bellard is just one of nearly 14 million Americans who have applied for unemployment insurance because of the pandemic.
Persistent issues with state unemployment offices show some states were ill-equipped to handle such a high number of claims. Antiquated computer systems have taken the blame for long backlogs of unemployment claims in many states. The result: 4 million Americans have waited more than four weeks for their first unemployment check during the pandemic, according to InvestigateTV analysis of unemployment claims.
For some – including Bellard – who have had to wait months for answers from state unemployment offices, the time for excuses has run out.
“You know you’re frustrated at first, and you continue to work and do what you have to do, but after a while,” Bellard said. “I have no idea what else to do.”
Bellard says her main frustration with the state of Louisiana has been the lack of communication she has received. In California, communication and the backlog of claims was an issue so prevalent elected officials got involved.
California state legislators grilled officials from the Employment Development Department in July. They wanted to know why more than a million unemployed Californians’ claims were left pending for months.
InvestigateTV analyzed over a decade’s worth of unemployment data, and found that on average states were able to pay more than half of all unemployment claims within a week of filing before the pandemic.
During the rise in claims throughout the pandemic, that number has shrunk to less than a third within a week.
In California, Employment office officials blamed the state’s old computer system, which runs on a decades old coding software called COBOL. A survey by The Verge found that at least 12 states use COBOL in their unemployment systems, and prior to the pandemic the state of California only employed one full-time programmer who was versed in the system, an Employment Development Department spokesperson told the website.
Issues with technologically stunted unemployment systems are gaining attention in other states too, including Virginia.
In Virginia, the state’s employment customer service team was made up of only five people when the pandemic began.
As unemployment numbers skyrocketed, they found themselves flooded with as many as 20,000 emails a day, making it nearly impossible to get in touch with someone from the office to discuss a claim.
Tevin Driver, a 27-year-old veteran from Colonial Beach, VA, experienced that firsthand. Driver was in the army until June 2019, when a series of injuries like a torn rotator cuff, torn ligaments in his arm, and carpal tunnel syndrome began interfering with his work. After receiving a medical discharge, Driver says he was told unemployment may be his best option.
“I used to be a mechanic in the military. I was in the infantry unit, and I can’t even work on cars, or work on trucks, nothing, anymore,” Driver said. “And it’s frustrating trying to find a job in that field when, I mean in any field, when you can’t even do it no more.”
After filing at the end of 2019, it took several months before he began receiving a paycheck. His benefits ran out in April. He received a letter from the state informing him that his benefits would be extended to October 2020 due to the virus.
Despite applying and receiving approval, Driver has yet to receive a payment.
InvestigateTV analyzed data from the Department of Labor, and found that in the months of March through August in 2019, the state of Virginia received just over 64,000 unemployment claims. In that same time frame in 2020, that number was over 1.1 million claims.
The Virginia Employment Commission declined to talk about Driver’s case citing confidentiality laws. But spokesperson Joyce Fogg said that delays have persisted likely due to the outdated computer system, which has not been updated since 1985.
The state was in the process of updating the system early this year, but that project had to be put on hold when the pandemic began.
“I can’t say whether that would have helped or not, but I think it would have,” Fogg said. “We were in a very old system that needed a lot of updating and I think that was part of our problem.”
In June alone, 10,000 cases were sent to the commission by state lawmakers, whose inboxes were filling up with individuals seeking help regarding their claim.
In July dozens of Democrat lawmakers in the state sent a letter to the employment commission, criticizing the ongoing delays and lack of communication.
The commission responded and blamed massive budget cuts that have led to understaffing, leaving the office unprepared to handle the wave of pandemic-induced claims.
State lawmakers have had concerns about the employment commission since 2017 and ordered an audit and review of the office. The review was later shelved in favor of a study on gaming and casinos.
According to Fogg, the employment commission’s call centers have grown from 82 employees to over 500. Because of this growth, claimants now can expect to hear back from the center within a day to discuss their claim, she said.
Despite this, Driver still has not been able to contact the unemployment office about his case. He said it feels like the state doesn’t care about those struggling to support themselves and their families during a financially uncertain time.
Of all cases filed, Fogg said, nearly 25% of claims are flagged for an issue that must be adjudicated, which would halt payments for the claimant until the claim is formally reviewed.
Currently, adjudications are the biggest backlog in the state, Fogg said.
Catching a Break
Annette Bellard had gone two months without an unemployment check when she was forced to evacuate her home in Lake Charles, LA, due to Hurricane Laura in August.
Before the pandemic, Bellard had been a full time employee for Redbox. But by the time Hurricane Laura hit it was not uncommon for her to work only five or ten hours a week, making her eligible for unemployment insurance. In the end, her holiday pay for the Fourth of July has cost her weeks of unemployment benefits.
When Bellard realized her account had been flagged in the Louisiana system, the portal stated that the status of her account would be decided within 21 days. Only then would she find out whether she was eligible for future benefits.
But by the time Hurricane Laura hit, Bellard had not heard about any decision made regarding her claim. She has been unable to get an answer on when, or if, she will receive unemployment benefits. And now, for the foreseeable future, she will not even be able to live in her own home due to the damage in her hometown.
“You can already imagine my frustration with the pandemic, your hours going down, then Hurricane Laura hits and you can’t be at your own house. Being at home would be some comfort, in this situation,” Bellard said. “But it just looks like one thing after another, doesn’t it?”
Right before the pandemic, Bellard had purchased a new truck for her job loading DVD’s into Redbox machines. Now, she says she is behind on those payments and just wants to be able to pay her bills.
InvestigateTV also reached out to the Louisiana Workforce Commission to ask about details on Bellard’s claim, but the commission said they were unable to discuss her claim due to confidentiality laws, despite Bellard’s permission.
“Rest assured, her claim has been sent to our unemployment insurance team and is under further review,” the commission said.
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