Other delays some recipients are experiencing have nothing to do with the stimulus, but instead are related to complicated processes for keeping people enrolled in unemployment benefits longer than a year, which varies state by state.
Abe Caldwell, 31, is one of those people. A bartender in Traverse City, Michigan who has been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic, Caldwell was bumped off the unemployment rolls last week for reasons about his income that he doesn’t fully understand.
“It was so stressful,” Caldwell said. “I filed the appeal, so we’ll see what happens with that. But I’m not gonna hold my breath.”
The new round of unemployment insurance delays represent the challenges facing the state and federal officials who are trying to get funds from the enormous covid relief package into the hands of those who need it most. Some 18 million people are still collecting unemployment insurance, including many since the beginning of the pandemic.
Millions of others have also experienced delays getting stimulus checks after each covid relief package that authorized them over the past year. Backlogs at the IRS are causing delays for tax refunds this season.
The delays this round are not expected to be as bad as the last time Congress extended benefits, in December, after months of deadlocked negotiations. Stettner says that his data showed some four to five million unemployed workers experienced delays then, and those delays were longer than he expected these to be.
The Washington Post reached out to 15 states to ask about whether they were expecting delays in implementing the benefits extension authorized by the new stimulus package.
One third of the group — Oregon, Ohio, Kansas, Nevada, and Oklahoma, said that it was either too early to tell or that they were awaiting guidance from the Department of Labor before they could give more information. Seven — Texas, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida Alabama and Michigan — said that they were not anticipating large numbers of delays, with many saying that since the bill extends existing programs, as opposed to creating new ones, had cut down on that possibility. California and North Carolina did not offer a detailed response to requests for comment. Tennessee said it was working as quickly as possible to update its computer system to implement the programs.
The Department of Labor said states still need to update their computer systems to adjust for the new programs. Workers will get paid retroactively for any weeks that are delayed, it said.
“Claimants will not see any gap in eligibility for the benefits extended by the American Rescue Plan Act,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement.
Throughout the pandemic, unemployed workers have reported long delays waiting for jobless aid, claims canceled under suspicion of fraud, and other issues that have caused them to be dropped from unemployment rolls, revealing weaknesses in a system meant to be a critical lifeline for people without the support of an income.
Michigan is one of a couple of states that has pushed some people off unemployment programs, according to local news reports. In Michigan, automatic triggers reduce how long individuals can collect aid after the state unemployment level drops below 8 percent, an issue that has nothing to do with the stimulus.
Caldwell, the bartender, has heard about so many problems with the Michigan unemployment system over the pandemic, that he considers himself fortunate to have only experienced a problem after a year of collecting unemployment without issue.
“I’ve been lucky, because there’s a lot of people in Michigan that have had issues just getting the money this whole time,” he said.
Caldwell lives with his fiancé, who is still employed, her mother, and his seven-year-old daughter, and says it’s been a struggle to stay up to date on their payments, even with the aid flowing.
The federal supplements that have been authorized by Congress — $600 a week that lasted until the end of July, and then $300 week from January until now — have been a critical lifeline, he said, helping them stay mostly above water on payments of their mortgage, which has been in forbearance although they’ve still been making payments when they can.
But being dropped from the unemployment rolls has now upended his plans.
He said he doesn’t understand why his claim was denied. The letter the agency sent him said that he didn’t meet the state’s “monetary eligibility” for unemployment insurance, and Caldwell is wondering if it’s because his income for the last year has come solely from unemployment insurance.
When asked about Caldwell’s claim, Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said that some workers needed to re-submit their claims after they are pushed off of extended benefits, to qualify for the extensions in the latest stimulus.
Erika Benison, 42, has been on and off unemployment insurance over the past year from her job as the food and beverage director of a golf course in the Chicago suburbs, as demand for her job has waxed and waned amid the public health scare.
She said the extra $600 weekly bonus that lasted from the beginning of the pandemic through July helped her and her husband stave off the forced sale of their home.
“We stockpiled money to so we never had to deal with that again,” she said. “Covid was a blessing.”
They’re on better footing now, she said, but still living month to month.
She was frustrated when the extra $300 in federal unemployment bonus, authorized in the December stimulus package, stopped showing up in her account the last few weeks, dropping her weekly payment down to the $225 she gets from the state.
Worse yet, she couldn’t figure out what was stopping the payment, after searching online and scouring a letter the state sent her flagging a potential eligibility problem with her claim.
“They never have a problem explaining you’ve been bumped, but they don’t explain why you’ve been bumped,” said Benison who found others facing the same problem in the Facebook group Illinois Unemployment Group.
George Wentworth, a former unemployment administrator for the state of Connecticut who is an expert on state systems, said that any delays now are the product of a complicated set of problems.
The majority stem from how many workers have now or will soon have been claiming unemployment for a year, a legacy of the tremendous job loss that marked the earliest months of the pandemic.
In normal times, workers are eligible for up to 26 weeks of benefits within a 52-week benefit year. But as it added more federal weeks of benefits, Congress changed the rules, as it has during other recessions, to prepare for higher levels of unemployment.
One year after filing for unemployment, workers can either continue filing for more federal weeks or establish entitlement to a new round of state benefits.
But if workers have done some work in the last year, such as being called back to work temporarily, then they may only qualify for a lower amount of benefits because their earnings were impacted by the pandemic, Wentworth said.
The fact that the stimulus packages passed only days before the unemployment expiration deadlines didn’t help the matter, Wentworth said. State unemployment agencies said that because this stimulus only extends current programs, and doesn’t create them anew or change them, their effort is easier than in December.
“It was pretty clear when they passed the last one they were already late,” Wentworth said. “And then this time, they authorized it through March 14 knowing that with a new administration, it was pretty much predestined that it would run up close to that date to get this extension.”
Most state unemployment agencies have said that because this stimulus package extends current unemployment benefit programs, instead of creating or changing them, their effort is easier than in December.
Democrats, lead by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.),.Sherrod Brown, Mark R. Warner (V.A.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), introduced a bill last month that would allocate $500 million to the Department of Labor to streamline unemployment systems across states, but it is not clear how much of a priority it is for the new Congress.
Susie, an underemployed nanny in Chicago who requested her last name not be used for fear of harming her employment prospects, said that she was caught off guard when her benefits expired two weeks ago, after claiming them for about a year.
“It’s completely misleading to people and the general public to say that if we get this by March 14 we won’t get a lapse in benefit. That was never going to be the case,” she said. “These systems are incapable of handling this. No matter how many upgrades or millions of dollars they’re pumping into this, it’s not like flipping a switch. For some reason, it takes a lot to get them going again.”
Alyssa Fowers contributed to this report.