Unemployed Americans Are Still Struggling to Get Their Benefits. Here’s What Can Be Done About It

Grace Williams, like millions of other unemployed Americans over the past year, faced repeated challenges getting her benefits from a swamped unemployment program.
Grace Williams, like millions of other unemployed Americans over the past year, faced repeated challenges getting her benefits from a swamped unemployment program.

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By the time Grace Williams was let go from her job as a financial aid counselor last fall, she had seen the writing on the wall. 

“I knew that they were going to have to downsize, and I knew that because I was the last one hired, I was going to be the first one to go,” Williams, 22, says. What she didn’t anticipate was the long, frustrating process of claiming unemployment insurance in her home state of South Carolina. 

In the weeks after submitting her application, Williams says she faced confusion about her eligibility, conflicting information about getting in touch with the unemployment office, and multiple cancellations of the determination interview she was told was required.

“Every time I would call the unemployment office, they wouldn’t answer, and they wouldn’t reply to my emails,” she says.

Williams’ story echoes accounts from millions of unemployed Americans since last March. The same lack of communication and months-long wait times claimants faced months ago remain status quo for new claimants. 

Despite ongoing problems, nearly a year of experience, knowledge sharing, and assistance has helped people navigate their own claims and get the payments they’re eligible for as quickly as possible. Whether you’re navigating a claim for the first time or are stuck in an ongoing back-and-forth with your state’s unemployment office, here’s what you need to know for 2021.

How It Started … and How It’s Going

The U.S. unemployment rate was the lowest it had been since 1969 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The tidal wave of layoffs and resulting unemployment claims was simply too much for state offices to handle, says Andrew Rozo, a New York attorney who volunteered throughout 2020 with the New York State Bar Association’s COVID-19 Pro Bono Network to help people struggling to reach the Department of Labor.

“Getting through to the Department of Labor … you had a better chance of winning the lottery at that time,” Rozo says.

About a year later, America’s high unemployment rate isn’t going anywhere. Jobless claims have fallen from last spring’s record highs, but new initial claims remain in the hundreds of thousands each week. The unemployment rate is still 6.3%, with 10.1 million Americans unemployed, according to the Feb. 5 jobs report from the Department of Labor. That’s nearly double the 3.6% jobless rate of late 2019, with 5.8 million unemployed people. 

‘Here We Go Again’

Jasmine Harris first had trouble getting her benefits over the summer, and faced new challenges in the fall.

Even after figuring out their initial claim problems, some find new issues arise weeks later.

Jasmine Harris spoke with NextAdvisor over the summer about her difficulties filing for unemployment in California after losing her job at a production company in Los Angeles last March. She endured a nearly six month-long wait before receiving any benefits.

“That was one of the most taxing times in my life,” says Harris, 30. She eventually began receiving the back pay in September, after reaching out to a state senator, but Harris says her payments were halted again last fall.

“I was baffled,” she says. “I thought, after going through that long situation, like, here we go again.”

What You Can Do to Get the Payments You’re Owed

The second time around, Harris says, resolving the issues with her claim was less painful. She was able to speak with an unemployment office representative who processed and restored her claim, allocating back pay for the weeks she missed in October, November, and December. 

Harris credits the lessons she learned last spring, as well as the resources she found throughout the process, in making her second experience with the labor department “easier to navigate.” 

Like Harris and millions of other claimants have learned, persistence is key.

Although state phone lines and websites remain inundated, there are actions you can take to help get the ball rolling. Here’s what experts and those who have already gone through the process recommend:

Don’t Hesitate

“The first thing you should do is go to your state unemployment website,” Rozo says. “Figure out the steps, what you need to do to apply, and don’t hesitate. Do that immediately. Get organized as fast as you can.”

The Department of Labor has a directory of every state’s unemployment office you can use as a starting point. 

Know Your State’s Guidelines

Unemployment benefits vary by state. While expanded benefits — like the extra $300 per week under the most recent stimulus package — are federal benefits, unemployment insurance is distributed by your state’s unemployment office. 

Each state has its own guidelines for how many weeks you may receive standard unemployment benefits (UI) and the assistance you qualify for. On top of that are a host of expanded federal unemployment benefits that make them available to more Americans, including gig workers and self-employed individuals who wouldn’t regularly qualify for state benefits.

Get familiar with your state’s unemployment site, including state-specific benefits timelines and eligibility guidance, and look for any additional local information on additional programs or assistance.

Certify Your Claim Weekly

Weekly certifications are a standard requirement for claiming state unemployment insurance as well as expanded federal benefits you qualify for.

“Continue to certify weekly.” That was a big misconception many new claimants didn’t understand early on, Rozo says. “Regardless of what’s going on in Congress, certifying weekly is key. It’ll keep you in the system, which will keep your benefits coming.”

The process varies by state, but you’ll typically need to certify online with your state’s labor department, where you can also find your state’s weekly claim window and confirm when to certify each week. Certification may include questions about any wages you earned, your continued ability to work, and job search to help determine your weekly eligibility. 

Reach Out for Help

Seek out people in your network, or online groups that can help you navigate the unemployment process.

Harris found a Facebook group dedicated to connecting local unemployment claimants in California helpful. She says learning from others in that Facebook group and staying informed on any updates or news related to benefits gave her more confidence to advocate for herself.

Unemployment attorneys can also be a great resource. Though attorneys are often costly, and their potential to help cut through state systems is limited, pro bono projects around the country (like the New York network Rozo is a part of) offer legal advice and even representation for claimants unable to get the payments they’re eligible for. You can find links to legal aid in your state via LawHelp.org.

Financial advisors across the country are also offering pro bono services, says Dan Herron, CPA and founder of Elemental Wealth Advisors in San Luis Obispo, California. They might assist with a spending plan or help you find assistance, and often offer virtual meetings at local and community levels, he says. You can find state-by-state information about certified financial planners offering pro bono assistance from the Financial Planning Association and National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.  

Make Use of Assistance Programs

Unemployment benefits can often help meet basic needs and daily expenses, but may not go far in helping you manage things like debts, health care, and mortgage and rent payments. For those financial obligations, nonprofit and government assistance programs can help.

And here are some more regular resources for federal, state, and local aid:

  • Food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)
  • Health care coverage under Medicaid, COBRA, or state marketplace plans
  • State and local nonprofit organizations, community organizers, and local assistance programs

Determine your eligibility for tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC)) which can help reduce your taxes owed

New Year, New Problems for Claimants

Jamie Hickey had been getting benefits since first filing for unemployment in March, before they stopped due to a lag with the extended relief package that passed in December.

The late December stimulus package caused another lag in benefits at the start of this year, leaving unemployed workers like Jamie Hickey, 50, without payment for weeks. 

Hickey first applied for unemployment insurance in March 2020. He was working for his wife’s furniture business, but when business slowed — “the vast majority of our customer base is colleges, businesses, and office buildings, and a lot of them closed” — they were forced to furlough employees, including Hickey. 

It took six weeks for his initial claim with the Pennsylvania unemployment office to process, he says, but payments proceeded relatively consistently after that — until they stopped altogether in early January. 

The office is working to update its system following the latest stimulus bill, according to messages Hickey says he’s received, and his back pay will reportedly be issued once the systems are aligned with the new law.

Williams, too, says the new year brought new problems with her claim. More than a month after applying, Williams eventually began receiving benefits in mid-December. But her weekly recertification was denied when she began graduate school in January, and she says her payment has remained pending since. Now, she’s waiting for communication from a representative to resolve the issue while continuing to call, email, and recertify weekly.

States Are Still Catching Up with Federal Relief

When the latest stimulus package was approved in late December (after the previous expanded benefits expired on Dec. 26), “we had to wait two weeks for the Department of Labor to issue guidance to states,” says Elizabeth Pancotti, a senior advisor at Employ America, a progressive labor policy group. “Now we’re in this period where it’s taking two to four weeks to implement that guidance. It’s a domino effect of waiting until the 11th hour to pass an extension of these programs.” 

State labor departments are scrambling to catch up, with little uniformity to their solutions. Some have started paying out benefits again, some are paying standard benefits but haven’t implemented the $300 supplement, and some haven’t yet brought claimants back into the system whose claims expired on Dec. 26, Pancotti says. 

“Some programs are being paid out, some claimants are being paid … But many workers are not receiving anything or have not received anything for several weeks.”

What’s most frustrating, Hickey says, is the lack of communication.  

“When you call, it says that the number is disconnected, or it’s just busy 24 hours a day,” Hickey says. “When you email them, they tell you it takes 4-6 weeks to reply back to you. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone and actually get your questions answered when there’s that much of a time lapse in between.”

What’s Next?

Nearly a year into the global pandemic and recession caused by COVID-19, little has changed for unemployed workers. But even as they continue fighting for their benefits, they’re also thinking longer-term.

“I am looking for work, and I don’t want to be so reliant on this,” Harris says. While she plans to return to production work, unfamiliar hiring practices and new safety measures implemented since the pandemic, she says, make that difficult. 

Her biggest concern is finding consistency to begin making the payments she owes, especially rent. Even though she’s finally receiving benefits weekly, “It just doesn’t cover even half of my rent, so I can never get on top of it,” Harris says. “The best thing I’m trying to do is figure out how to keep consistent income.”

Hickey, too, is uncertain about the changes the pandemic has caused in his industry, and how a trend toward remote work may impact his family’s office furniture business. “We’ve put a lot of years into this business and it would be nice to go back, but I just don’t know what the landscape is going to be for now,” he says. 

Williams began a graduate program in January studying public administration. She had money saved for school, but she’s relying on unemployment insurance for the essentials, like her rent, car payments, and food. “It’s been kind of a bare survival kind of thing,” she says. 

While taking classes part-time, she’s continuing to apply for jobs. “My goal is to start breaking into the industry that I want to be in, career-wise, within the next couple months. I don’t plan to be on unemployment until it runs out; I want to be off unemployment.”

Unemployment and Stimulus in 2021

In the meantime, unemployment claimants are on the brink of another benefits cliff next month, unless Congress takes action. Many current relief measures — including the supplemental $300 per week, PUA, and PEUC benefits — are slated to end on March 14. 

The new administration wants to prevent another series of delays and payment limbo: President Biden has expressed intent to extend benefits, and his proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus plan would extend programs through September and increase the current $300 weekly federal supplement to $400.

But the clock is ticking. Unemployment experts and state labor departments agree, Pancotti says, extensions need to pass at least a month in advance of the deadline, or Feb. 14, to prevent similar delays again in March.

Like much of the past year, the months ahead will require patience. Vaccines offer a glimpse into the light at the end of the tunnel, but rollouts are slow nationwide; the number of jobless workers remains high; unemployment claimants lie in wait for action from Congress; and businesses are unable to reopen because of surging COVID cases. 

It’s all connected, Rozo says. “Except now we should be in a better place — we’ve got a year of experience. My worry is that we end up exactly where we were.”