In March, Congress passed the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, allocating $2 trillion to help Americans affected by the pandemic.
One major peg of the bill propped up businesses and their workers as the economy ground to a halt. More than four months later — as D.C. lawmakers debate another stimulus bill — many jobless people are still navigating state bureaucracies in the hope of receiving CARES Act aid.
Recognizing that an enormous spectrum of workers, including the self-employed, experienced financial declines due to the pandemic, the CARES Act dramatically expanded unemployment eligibility. This authorized a historic number of unemployment claims from people who would normally be ineligible, feeding them into a system built for more traditional categories of workers.
States across the country faced challenges and setbacks in the unprecedented effort to administer federal emergency funds that followed. Like most state unemployment insurance agencies, Wyoming’s Department of Workforce Services has struggled to distribute a massive stimulus package efficiently.
Online applications for the new types of unemployment insurance took months to get up and running. Now that they are in place, the process has proven to be particularly difficult for residents who fit into the new categories of self-employed, freelance and gig workers.
“I’m running out of my savings and I’ve been talking about how I’m OK, but that’s not going to be the case for a lot longer,” said Danielle Arnoux, whose house-cleaning business in Sheridan has taken a hit by the pandemic.
Arnoux, who fits in one of the new nontraditional categories for unemployment insurance assistance, has been trying since March to file a successful claim, she said. Nearly five months later, after many phone calls, waits, confusing instructions and one denial, she’s still hopeful that she will secure assistance.
“I’m just praying the universe will give me some help because honestly my life is going really good right now other than, obviously, the pandemic,” Arnoux said.
‘Time-consuming, confusing, disheartening’
During the week of March 15-21, Wyoming residents filed 3,743 new claims for unemployment insurance, a 635% jump from the previous week. In response to the wave of fillings, DWS promptly restructured its call center, streamlined some routine activities such as resetting claimants’ PINs, and waived work-search requirements.
Beginning April 17, an extra $600 a week was automatically added to payments on existing claims in Wyoming’s system. The federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs, however, had to be designed from the ground up.
By May, Wyoming workers had filed more than 30,000 claims over and above seasonal norms, and DWS announced it had contracted with an outside call center in addition to its regular line in order to deal with the call volume.
“Our cloud-based Unemployment Insurance system has been able to handle the increase in claims and has not gone down due to too many filers at one time,” DWS Communications Manager Ty Stockton said recently. “Our telephone system has not been as robust, though. The number of telephone lines we have for our unemployment insurance system and the number of unemployment insurance representatives are simply not enough to keep up with the demand.”
PEUC benefits were designed for people who have already used up their state’s maximum unemployment allocation. In Wyoming, regular unemployment insurance is available for up to 26 weeks. PEUC added a 13-week extension to eligibility, but the system’s availability wasn’t announced until June 12, just over 12 weeks after the first statewide shutdown orders were issued.
PUA benefits, meanwhile, apply to self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers, and others who don’t fit neatly into the category of a traditional employee. At the beginning of the pandemic, the DWS website encouraged potential PUA applicants to check back often for updates.
In Wyoming, the online PUA application became available on May 1. The delay was the result of an effort that entailed a significant amount of coding to get right, Stockton said. “By the time we got that up and running,” he said, “there had been people who had been out of work for several weeks. So PUA was designed so that it would be retroactive.”
Assuming a person lost his or her job on March 19, when Gov. Mark Gordon closed schools and many businesses, they would have been unemployed for roughly six weeks by May 1. But unlike the extra $600 program, there was no automatic method in place to identify eligible people, and no guarantee they would get the message. Although DWS posted a press release May 1, other sections of its website purporting to offer COVID-19 related resources weren’t updated for several more weeks.
According to a survey released by the Freelancers Union on May 1, delay and confusion regarding PUA and other forms of federal aid were the norm nationally.
“Over the last week,” it posted on its website, “2,767 Freelancers Union members answered a survey to tell us about their struggles with these broken systems. The results are shocking: 84% of freelancers who had applied for government relief had not yet received any money.”
Also, the survey found that 66% of respondents had already lost more than $5,000 in income, and 86% had applied for at least one type of federal aid.
“The process of wading through these different systems is time-consuming, confusing, and disheartening,” the post continued.
One-quarter of respondents had spent more than 20 hours researching and filling out applications for relief funding. More than half said they received confusing or incorrect instructions on what to do, and reported dealing with broken web systems, while 45% found unresponsive phone lines.
In Sheridan, as the owner of her own house-cleaning business, Arnoux should fit into the PUA category. She decided to open her own business because it fit better with her life as a single mom, she said, and applied for a PUA claim after her business took a hit in the downturn that followed the pandemic. The process has been anything but smooth, she said.
For months, like many across America, Arnoux experienced long hold times and a lack of information about PUA. In early July, she reported, “I just kept getting emails that there was no money until the national CARES Act came through. I’ve emailed, I’ve called. No answer and no emails. I have no idea where I’m at in the queue. I’ve tried to get unemployment since this hit March 12 and it’s July and the only thing I’ve ever gotten back is a chain mail like reply.”
Despite her faith that the program will work, Arnoux did begin to panic a little bit when she wasn’t hearing back, she said. Fortunately, her mortgage is through the USDA Rural Development First Time Homebuyers program.
“They just put a moratorium on paying our mortgage for six months. That’s the only reason why I haven’t gone into panic mode yet. I haven’t even talked to a live person, and I’ve emailed like five maybe six times in the past couple months,” she said.
Later in July, Arnoux tried again. This time, “everything worked. I just went online, made a claim, and now I’m just gonna wait,” she said.
On July 24, Arnoux received a letter informing her that her claim had been denied.
‘It’s pretty intense’
Many states made it more difficult to get jobless benefits following the 2008 spike in claims, according to the New York Times.
Stockton says Wyoming has not erected additional hurdles for recipients.
“Wyoming has not attempted to reduce unemployment insurance with complexity for any reason,” he said.
Federal statute mandates that claimants must first be denied regular Unemployment Insurance before applying for PUA benefits. Most of the questions on the traditional unemployment application are irrelevant to self-employed workers. This can make navigating the application form confusing and tedious.
In one part of the form, for instance, the applicant has to name their last traditional employer for potential arbitration. For many, this may be an employer from years, or even decades, ago.
Stockton stressed the importance of reading and answering each question carefully. Errors can occur for a lot of different reasons, he said.
“We have a lot of people who get frustrated or they get in a hurry, and I can completely understand it because you’re usually not hitting that unemployment application on your best day. It’s very specific,” he said.
People should take their time and work through the application slowly because terminology can be confusing, Stockton said.
“It’s something that you just want to devote your full attention to, if you can, while you’re filling it out, because it’s pretty intense,” he said.
Once denied for traditional UI, a claimant may have to appeal the denial and be denied again before they can move on in the process. This can take months. Once fully and finally denied, the applicant must then fill out a separate PUA application.
As of July 8, 62% of Wyoming applicants — 4,188 residents — had received PUA benefits, according to DWS.
Wyoming’s low population, financial reserves and modern information infrastructure mean the state has fared relatively well, Stockton said.
In 2019, Wyoming upgraded to a cloud-based computer system to handle unemployment claims. Stockton described being on a recent call with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies and hearing from a colleague about their highly unreliable computer system.
“They’re working on an old mainframe that, about four to five times a week, the whole thing just craters,” Stockton said. “They have to shut it all down and restart it. It’s down for a couple of hours as they get everything rebooted, so that just really slows things down. I’m glad we’re not dealing with that.”
That state has around 400,000 people on unemployment, according to Stockton. “We’ve only got 20,000, so… we’re lucky.”
It can be done
Stephen “Scott” Barksdale has done contract work for NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander for the past 15 years. He became a freelancer after realizing that a well-paid office job was not what he wanted in life.
“Life is too short, and I was in an office all day,” Barksdale said.
Since Barksdale started as a field instructor at NOLS, his work there has been one of punctuated equilibrium. He consistently receives work, and has been able to collect unemployment between contracts.
When the pandemic began, it gravely threatened the future of the outdoor education company. The school laid off or cut hours of more than 60% of its full-time staff and estimated that more than 500 field instructors lost work, Barksdale among them.
He filed for unemployment and was successful with very little drama.
“I feel like dealing with bureaucracies is something that I’m reasonably good at,” said Barksdale. “If somebody ever asks a question about what my weird superpowers are … that might be my answer.”
Barksdale advises applicants to expect to sacrifice time and not be in a hurry. He found DWS to be helpful and said the people who work there provide good customer service, he said.
Things are shaping up on the workfront, meanwhile.
“I actually went back to work today for NOLS,” he said on July 9. “I was able to get a contract this summer. It looks like our fall is shaping up to turn out OK.”
“A clean claim”
The best case scenario for both the unemployed and DWS, Stockton said, is that applicants accomplish “clean” claims — ones free of issues that delay the process.
DWS has 20 workforce centers, he said, nearly one for each county in the state.
Traveling to a workforce center is “a fair drive for a lot of people, but it’s worth the drive if it results in what we call a clean claim,” he said. “If you can get that claim as clean as you can get it, then there’s going to be less that’s going to get in the way down the line.”
Stockton said that the process is thorough in order to ensure claimants meet all federal and state requirements and that the money goes to those who truly need it and not to fraudsters.
The uptick in cases still presents DWS with a large workload, but the state benefits from its modernized system, he said.
For better or worse, a national system designed in 1935 and reduced in response to the Great Recession of 2008, is now tasked with an unprecedented effort to administer federal emergency funds. Bottlenecks occur.
In response, DWS is restructuring its workweek. The department will shut down the in-house call center on Wednesdays going forward to resolve claims with “issues on file” Stockton said.
“We aren’t that big of a shop,” Stockton said. “This is the most [claims] we’ve had at one time in the history of UI, even before we had this new system.”