US seeing the cost of late unemployment benefits

Nearly one in five Americans has been left unemployed amid the pandemic.

A couple million more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week -- leaving more than one in five Americans unemployed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lingering and indisputably important question enters every potential claimant's mind after applying: When will I receive my benefits?

"I have been nine weeks without pay," said Christina Kegan, a data balancing specialist in Florida. Kegan was laid off in March and said she has been living off of the travel money her family saved up for her daughter's open heart surgery later this summer.

The past few months have unveiled just how important it is to receive unemployment benefits in a timely fashion. Some states have fared worse than others when processing claims, and there is still no concrete estimate of how many Americans have actually received their unemployment benefits.

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One expert roughly estimated that just 60% of the 36.5 million people who have filed initial claims since March 15 have been paid the benefits they are owed -- a percentage based on the number of initial claims submitted versus the amount in unemployment paid out thus far.

Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, added that this number is steadily on the rise -- indicating that most eligible applicants should start to see their benefits in the coming weeks.

"I think even in the last few days, you know, it seems like people are starting to get paid," Stettner said. "But I think it's just really excruciating for individuals [who've waited for benefits]. They had nowhere to turn, they can't get good information."

Michele Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst at National Employment Law Project, estimates that more than 60% of eligible unemployment applicants have received payment -- but both Evermore and Stettner agree that the timing of some of these benefits has been inconvenient for applicants.

"There are people who are out of work for up to two months before they get their unemployment insurance benefits -- that's if they could even get through to the system," said Evermore, referring to applicants' respective state unemployment system. "We live in an economy where a lot of people are paycheck to paycheck."

Unfortunately, Evermore is right, and this is particularly true of the average unemployment applicant, according to a recent study.

"The typical unemployed worker does not have the money in their checking account or the assets to cover one month's expenses," said Peter Ganong, an assistant professor at the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago.

"The typical unemployed person has $1,200 in their checking account at the time that they become unemployed, and only a few thousand dollars in total assets," Ganong explained. "And so, waiting for weeks and weeks on end or months on end for [an unemployment] check is potentially devastating."

We are already beginning to see the impact of late unemployment benefits. Without her benefits coming in, Kegan says food pantries have been "a lifesaver" for her family.

"We're seeing these big lines at food pantries and I think part of that is because people don't have access to unemployment benefits to meet their basic needs," Stettner told ABC News. "That's what unemployment benefits are best at doing, to meet those basic needs -- your food, your rent, your car payments -- to keep you in place until things turn around or you find another job."

The study by Ganong and his colleagues shows that most eligible unemployment applicants will eventually receive more money in benefits than they would have if they were still employed, a moot point to Kegan and others still waiting on their benefits.

"That's what a lot of people aren't understanding -- a lot of us aren't over here sitting on this money," said Kegan, adding that even for those deemed eligible for benefits, like her son, the checks have trickled in slowly and sporadically. "I have been nine weeks with no pay, I am not making more than anyone."

Additionally, Evermore worries that late fees and other expenses may have piled to insurmountable levels for those who waited or continue to wait for benefits.

"It's expensive to be a broke person in the United States. Almost anybody who charges you a monthly bill, if you don't pay that, you're paying fees on top," said Evermore. "And so, a person is faced with either being late and paying these fees or borrowing at an extremely high rate."

The backlog of unemployment benefits may be finally starting to unravel, but some states continue to lag behind. North Carolina has paid roughly 60% of residents who've applied for unemployment benefits since March 15.

Kegan's home state of Florida has struggled to meet unemployment demands since the start of the pandemic. Florida has paid approximately 58% of the total 1.68 million verified unemployment applications the state has received.

"I don't think there's any states that have had an easy time with this," said Stettner, listing the issues state labor departments face, such as out-of-date technology and managing too few employees while attempting to process a large influx of claims. "If you had a more complicated issue, or you checked the wrong box, the delays are longer than usual because they don't have enough people to verify and investigate these activities."

According to Evermore, however, labor departments like Florida's were struggling long before the pandemic.

"Florida's system was designed to fail," Evermore told ABC News, adding that the state is often ranked lowest in distributing unemployment benefits. "As of the first quarter of last year in Florida, only 8.3 percent of unemployed workers in the state were able to get unemployment insurance benefits."

Although she's yet to receive payment, Kegan was finally deemed eligible for benefits this week. She first applied for benefits March 23. Over a month later, on April 27, she was deemed ineligible and was not given a reason for her ineligibility.

After several more attempts, Kegan was told Monday that she was eligible for benefits. It is still unclear why she was deemed ineligible the first few times she applied -- and several people who spoke with ABC News said they too were deemed ineligible without reason by Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

When asked about the Floridians who weren't given a reason for their ineligibility, a DEO spokesperson said: "There are numerous reasons an applicant can be found to be ineligible, including incomplete or inaccurate information. For individuals who may have incomplete or inaccurate information, DEO is reaching out to assist in completing their applications."

Kegan hopes to complete the process and request back pay starting from when she first applied in March, as she's exhausted the travel money for her daughter's heart surgery.

"Now we need to come up with money for this trip," Kegan told ABC News. "We can't postpone it, so all we can do is hope to get the money back -- either get back to work in time or get this money in time."

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