By VICTOR ORDONEZ and LAYNE WINN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — While 22 million people have filed for unemployment since March 15, that does not mean everyone is receiving the benefits. Many people aren’t just running out of money — they are running out of patience.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, it would take an average of two to three weeks for state labor departments to process an unemployment application, according to senior fellow at the Century Foundation, Andrew Stettner.
“This marks my fifth week since applying for unemployment,” said Liisa Luick, a sales associate at Macy’s. She worked for the company for 13 years before she was furloughed from one of the company’s Washington state locations.
“That’s a long time to be without income,” said Luick, noting the bills due at the end of the month. “In a week I am going to have bills due, and I would like to be able to pay them.”
Along with her growing fears, Luick’s mounting frustrations are aimed at Washington’s Department of Economic Security (DES).
“I am seeing people apply for the first time this week — and they get approved,” Luick told ABC News. “Why not me? Why not my colleagues who also applied five weeks ago?”
The DES declined to tell ABC News how many unemployment applications are still pending. As of last week, DES reported receiving over 600,000 unemployment applications since March 15. As of April 11, approximately 250,000 of those initial claim applicants received payment, according to a DES spokesperson.
Labor departments around the country are overrun with unemployment applications. Each state is handling the overload differently, with some faring better than others.
The cost of unemployment
The initial unemployment claims since March 15 totaled 12.5 million people, as of April 4. The cost of paying unemployment benefits for 12.5 million people would equal approximately $12 billion, according to Stettner.
With the unemployment claims since March 15 now totaling over 22 million, Stettner’s estimate is likely to double. Louisiana spent over $560 million in unemployment benefits in the last month — that’s more than four times the amount the state spent in all of 2019.
Meanwhile, Florida is paying less than 12% of unemployment applicants who have filed since March 15.
Approximately 95,000 of the over 800,000 Floridians who filed for unemployment since March 15 have received unemployment checks, according to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). The state has spent about $125 million in unemployment benefits.
The number of applicants receiving checks rose from about 34,000 the previous week, which could be a result of the hundreds of staff members and the additional website traffic capacity the DEO has added.
“Still, no one answers the phone,” said Christopher Imeson, a furloughed caddie for a golf course in Ponte Vedra, Florida. His application has been pending for close to a month now.
“I see people who are in the same boat as me, and they get approved — and I am happy for them,” Imeson said. “But they applied three days ago, when I am next? What is going on?”
Part of the delay, according to the DEO, stems from flaws in the department’s website. Although the number of initial claims the DEO received sits at approximately 800,000, the department has received over 1.6 million applications consisting of duplicates and triplicates created via its online application process.
Imeson told ABC News last week he wasn’t sure what he and his young son would do for food the following week. He says he’s grateful to friends and family who were able to send him money for groceries this week.
“I’m going to buy what I need — I am buying things that will last,” Imeson said, standing outside his local Publix. “Who knows how much longer this will go on for.”
North Carolina has sent checks to approximately a third of unemployment applicants who’ve filed since March 15.
At least 273,699 of the 705,339 North Carolina residents who filed for unemployment since March 15 have received payment, the North Carolina Division of Employment Security announced Wednesday.
The state has paid for over $600 million in unemployment benefits since March 15, according to the department.
In Nevada, the state has sent checks to more than half of the unemployment applicants who’ve filed since March 15.
Of the 303,705 applicants who applied for unemployment since March 15, 173,347 have received a check, according to Nevada’s Department of Employment. The state has spent over $240 million on unemployment benefits in that time.
California and New York labor departments say they are keeping up with demand.
Approximately 1.1 million New Yorkers who applied for unemployment since March 15 have received unemployment insurance benefits — accounting for the majority of New Yorkers who’ve applied in that time, according to the New York Department of Labor (NY DOL).
The state has spent nearly $2.2 billion in unemployment insurance benefits since the state’s shutdown began, according to the NY DOL.
There’s no information available yet on how many California unemployment initial claims applicants have received a check. However, California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) has processed 2.7 million claims over the past month, according to a spokesperson. This would be 2.3 million more than the highest one month processing record in California history.
A department spokesperson says the state has paid over $975 million in unemployment benefits between March 15 and April 11.
What could be done?
“Improve technology,” said Stettner. “Have call back systems in place where someone can call you back instead of being on hold for hours.”
Since implementing a similar system, NY DOL says its application call backlog prior to April 8 has been reduced from 275,000 to 4,305.
Stettner added that states can shift the rules around to pay people quicker.
“If somebody applies and indicates they are laid off and they have a history, you can start paying them without having processed everything,” Stettner told ABC News, noting that California EDD is implementing a form of this.
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