“My Claim Went Through, But I Was Found Ineligible”: Why Some People Are Still Not Getting Unemployment

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
Unemployment offices have been under extreme strain for over a month now. Today, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that another 3.8 million people filed for unemployment in the week ending on April 25th, bringing the total initial unemployment claims since mid-March to 30 million. Though this week’s numbers are down from the week before, layoffs and furloughs are likely to continue as employers fear the long-term economic impacts of COVID-19. 
Initially, there was a lot of confusion about who was eligible for unemployment benefits and worries about how people whose incomes had been slashed would get by on the meager unemployment benefit rates most states offer. Fortunately, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program guaranteed by the CARES Act gives financial help to anyone whose employment has been affected by COVID-19, including gig workers and self-employed people who typically aren’t eligible for state unemployment. $600 a week from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on top regular state unemployment gave hope to many that they’d have a livable wage to weather the worst of the pandemic — at least until the end of July, when the PUA runs out.
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But actually getting that much-needed money has been a challenge for too many. The high volume of unemployment claims is compounded by the fact that many unemployment offices use very outdated systems, and a process that often requires claimants to call into the office. 
Jessica, 24, was furloughed from her job in Connecticut. “I applied a few days after I was furloughed. My company paid me for two weeks after my last day,” she says. “I’ve been furloughed for 5 weeks and I haven’t received any payments. I received a letter a month after I was furloughed stating that the DOL couldn’t find any record of my employment. I had to reapply and haven’t heard anything since. I tried to call the DOL, but it kept directing me to go online, and I couldn’t get a hold of anyone over the phone.”
Why would an unemployment office not be able to find your record of employment? One way that can happen is if your employer hasn’t been reporting your wages. This is especially common for misclassified independent contractors like Uber drivers, says Nicole Salk, Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Services NYC. “Most of the people you're seeing actually get through the system are regular W-2 earners whose employers have properly classified them and where there are not missing wages,” says Salk. While Uber drivers and other gig workers are by law considered employees — which means their employers should pay into unemployment insurance — often they don’t pay and don’t report wages on their employees. That makes it hard for unemployment offices to process claims for their laid-off workers. 
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Anna, 23, is a laid-off child care supervisor in Pennsylvania. “March 21st was my initial claim date and the first day I was laid off,” she says. “I was able to file and then was promptly denied within the next 4 days due to no record of me having worked for the business I’ve been working with for over a year. Upon receiving my denial, I attempted calling, emailing, and sending mail by the USPS so that I could file an appeal, and have not heard back for over a month. My employer has not and will not pay unemployment taxes on me or my coworkers.”
When people have trouble getting benefits because their employers didn’t report their earnings, that “ties up the system for everybody,” Salk says. “Many of those employers are cheating the system. And the department of labor has had years, frankly, to make them report the wages, but they haven't done that, and now we see the problem.”
States could force companies to report wages right now for their independent contractors. “The law already requires employers who are liable for contributions to report earnings. It's in the labor law,” Salk says. 
The New York Unemployment Insurance Coalition, for example, sent a letter to Governor Cuomo’s office urging the state to require companies like Uber and Lyft to immediately provide wage reports. The letter also asked that the state approve claims “prior to making a final eligibility determination” because this would relieve them from having to speak to someone from the office, speeding up the process, as well as clearing the phone lines for people who do not speak English or Spanish, among other requests. The situation isn’t unique to New York, and all states should be prioritizing adopting more emergency changes to the unemployment initial claims process.
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Another source of confusion and delays lies in the application itself. “People are making mistakes on their applications, and really these are mistakes that anybody would make,” Salk says.
She gives the example of a question asking if the claimant is available for work. Usually, one of the requirements for unemployment is that you’re available for work and actively seeking it, so you’re supposed to answer yes. But of course, circumstances are different during a pandemic when we’ve been ordered to stay at home. Salk explains the confusion this can cause right now. “When you ask are you available to work — well, I don't know, I'm not supposed to go outside,” she says. States like Connecticut have waived the work search requirement for now, but many others have not, including New York.
Another question asking claimants if they have the ability to telework is also causing a misunderstanding. People believe this is asking if they would be willing to work remotely, so they often answer yes. But you’re supposed to say no — the question is in fact asking whether you have been offered the opportunity to work from home, because that may make you ineligible for the extra Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. “You would think there would be something explaining it on the application so that people wouldn't get screwed up,” Salk says.
And if you make a mistake on your application, you can’t edit or resubmit right away. You have to get in touch with someone from the unemployment office, and many claimants have reported that even after weeks they’ve been unable to reach someone on the phone.
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“The application itself is not very clear,” says Ashley, 29, who applied in New York and was also told someone would call her within 72 hours of submitting her application. “I did not receive a call. I called the unemployment phone number and was told they do not have my application. I then had to reapply by phone. The next day I received a call from the UI office and completed my application.  My account online currently states my application is not complete and I need to call the phone number to complete. I have not been able to get through on the phone.”
Joan, 26, has yet to receive any assistance from the state of California. “My claim went through, but I was found ineligible,” she says. She was furloughed from her job and filed for unemployment on March 31st. “[It’s a] very difficult navigation system when applying from a phone,” she says. “I switched it over to my laptop, but it wasn’t any easier. I’ve reached out multiple times via email and phone call for two weeks now and have heard nothing. I applied a month ago and have received no income nor stimulus.”
Many have taken to Twitter to contact their department of labor or governor’s office because the phone lines are too busy. Requiring so many initial claimants to speak to someone on the phone is a huge factor in the delays. 
Unemployment insurance is here for situations just like this — when you suddenly find yourself without your income. But the help people need is time-sensitive. Receiving back payments for unemployment benefits you didn’t receive while your claim was pending is nice, but it doesn’t help pay bills due right now.
That unemployment offices are struggling to handle so many claims is understandable. Salk agrees that the people working in these offices are working extremely hard. But it doesn’t excuse the problems in the system itself, or the state and federal authorities who haven’t shown the appropriate urgency in getting people money today. We shouldn’t have to rely on mutual aid funds and hope to skate by on an eviction moratorium when we can’t pay rent. Nor is “reopening the economy” and protesting lockdowns the solution to sluggish systems. But with every week that passes in which many Americans aren’t getting the help they need, more and more people may be tempted to gamble on putting their health — and the health of others — at risk.

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