A year into COVID pandemic, unemployed workers still struggling to get benefits

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- It has been a year of turmoil for those who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a year ago on Wednesday, NC Governor Roy Cooper expanded unemployment benefits to help those suddenly out of work. It's been a tough battle for the state's Division of Employment Security (NCDES) to keep up with the surge in filings to pay benefits.

ABC11 Troubleshooter Diane Wilson has helped dozens of desperate viewers cut through the red tape to get their money, and while NCDES has paid out more than $10 billion in state and federal benefits since the pandemic started, their work is far from over. Wilson continues to hear from frustrating unemployed daily who say they can't get answers from DES when it comes to their benefits.

Lloyd Askew, who is unemployed, sent an email stating, "My family and have severely struggled through this pandemic because of the unprofessional handling of this situation by DES. Again, the only response that I have been given since filing the PUA claim on September 4, 2020, is that its in pending status and can't move forward until the appeal's department do their part. This is truly appalling and disgusting if I may add, and unprofessional at its worst."

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"I need help, this is ridiculous," says a frustrated Kerry MacLeod who's unemployed and was getting benefits but those halted when it came time to recertify.

While it has taken time for DES to work through the surge of claims filed due to the pandemic, Pryor Gibson, the Assistant Secretary of DES said during a recent legislative oversight committee on unemployment insurance that his agency has made progress over the year. According to their data, just 2% of claims are still pending resolution for state and federal benefits.

The focus right now for DES is to handle the backlog when it comes to appeals.

"Our PUA backlog is essentially non-existent. We've been able to manage those hundreds of thousands of cases now after adding those folks and we are now turning our resources to address those appeals backlog," Gibson said during the hearing. To handle that backlog, DES says it's quadrupled its staff of appeal referees.

"Due to the surge in claims related to the COVID-19, it is taking longer than usual to schedule appeals hearings. The time between notification and the actual hearing date is about 14 -21 days, though scheduling the appeal hearing may take a few months," a DES representative added.

When it comes to other improvements since the pandemic, DES upgraded their online filing system and as of this month still has a staff of nearly 1,600. However, despite the additions, federal data shows North Carolina ranking 43rd in the country for timeliness of first-time payments.
One hurdle according to DES, implementing and administering multiple new state and federal pandemic assistance programs. During the hearing in front of the legislative committee, he told them, "We are not done. We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have a lot of improvements we still need to make."

The division is also working hard to prevent fraud. A representative says, "Fraud resulting from outside identity theft has emerged as an issue for states during the COVID-19 pandemic and DES continues to refine its fraud detection methods and metrics."

Here are the increased efforts DES says it's taking to prevent and detect unemployment fraud include:
  • Tightening up account security measures through the use of Multi-Factor Authentication, reCAPTCHA and an identity verification service called ID.me.
  • Implementing new alerting tools for DES staff to use in their investigations.
  • Participating in a multi-state data hub with information about known and potentially fraudulent claims and receiving information from the National Directory of New Hires and the Wage Crossmatch programs.
  • Monitoring trends and tips to identify potential fraud schemes.

One big change for those who are unemployed, starting this week, for the first time since the pandemic new claimants are required to complete work search activities each week in order to receive benefits.

Also, for many unemployed who lost their jobs at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in March of 2020, it means they have to reapply for benefits as a claimant's benefit year for state unemployment insurance is the 52-week period beginning from the date the person files a valid claim. A benefit year is not based on the calendar year.

If you are still filing for unemployment, DES says claimants will be prompted through their online account to file a new claim when their new benefit year begins. We are already hearing for those impacted that their benefits are less after they re-apply.

One ABC11 who wished to remain anonymous writes, "I have been collecting unemployment since last March because of the pandemic. On 3/14, I had to renew, and my weekly amount went from $186 to $20! The base period used to calculate were wages earned from Oct 2019 to Sep 2020. I was unemployed or with drastically reduced hours during this time and it was at the height of the pandemic. Using wages during a time of unemployment makes no sense."

To find out more information about unemployment benefits in North Carolina click here.
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