'We don't feel heard': 2 months in, many nontraditional workers still waiting for unemployment

Millions are seeking help through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

May 15, 2020, 5:51 PM

It was March 15 when Emily West lost her waitressing job in Akron, Ohio, and applied for unemployment insurance. Two months later, instead of government assistance, she only has credit card debt.

"Literally the day that I was laid off, I went home, I sat down and I applied for unemployment," said West, a 23-year-old part-time waitress whose paycheck provided groceries for herself, her fiancee and her 6-year-old daughter.

But she's now gone nine weeks with no income. The type of employment insurance West is qualified for is not traditional unemployment -- it's called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, and it was only launched in Ohio on Tuesday, nearly two months after the CARES Act, which established the assistance, was passed.

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"I've pretty much maxed out my credit cards because I've been buying paper towels and toilet paper and soap and stuff with my credit cards because I don't have cash," West said. "And that's just piling up, which is really stressful." Her family has been living off of the disability benefits her fiancee, a veteran, receives.

When West first applied for traditional unemployment insurance in March, she was denied. Because she primarily makes her money in tips, her hourly wages of around $4 an hour were too little to allow her to qualify for unemployment.

Like millions of Americans around the country, West has since learned that she can only qualify for PUA, a different kind of unemployment that is supposed to cover people who haven't historically been able to get unemployment, including West, or independent contractors like real estate agents and barbers, and gig workers like Uber or Lyft drivers.

And despite their large impact on the workforce -- nontraditional wage earners make up at least one-third of the American workforce, per government estimates -- in nearly half the country, people waiting for PUA have been stuck at the back of the unemployment line.

In 19 states, governments have either just started providing the benefits or still have yet to provide any assistance, a state-by-state analysis by ABC News shows.

For West, though, she has meticulously followed the government's instructions, watched Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's daily press conferences, and set up Twitter alerts to track any news from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, getting any helpful updates about PUA has been a nightmare.

"I think me and a lot of other people don't feel heard by the government," West told ABC News. "And we don't feel represented as we should be because of the way it's been handled. A lot of our questions we've been posing are going unanswered."

In addition to Ohio, there remain eight other states in the U.S. that have yet to pay residents a dime of unemployment from PUA: Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Nevada and Wisconsin.

Of those states, roughly half are accepting applications. In states where applications for PUA haven't been fully rolled out, like Delaware, Hawaii and Nevada, the process is further behind.

It can take weeks for states to move from the initial stage of accepting applications to the final stage of payment.

In Wisconsin, applicants were told it would take 30 days.

PHOTO: Arnashia McCain uses her phone to copy phone numbers posted on the locked doors of a Georgia Department of Labor office, May 7, 2020, in Norcross Ga. McCain drives for Lyft and has been unable check on the status of her her unemployment claim.
Arnashia McCain uses her phone to copy phone numbers posted on the locked doors of a Georgia Department of Labor office, May 7, 2020, in Norcross Ga. McCain drives for Lyft and has been unable check on the status of her her unemployment claim.
John Bazemore/AP

In Ohio, where West is one of 114,000 residents who have successfully submitted a long-awaited online PUA application since the form went live on Tuesday morning, the first payments should begin on May 20, about eight days after the system launched, said Bret Crow, a spokesperson from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.

The two-month delay in the system's launch largely stemmed from tracking down the right vendor to host the new system, said Crow. After narrowing it down to three different companies, Ohio eventually picked Deloitte to launch the new system.

Around the country, prospects have improved since the end of April, when 21 states -- double the current number -- were not issuing payments. Since the beginning of May, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming have begun paying PUA to residents.

Total payouts have ranged from $21 million in Connecticut to $231 million in Pennsylvania, according to officials with the states' labor departments.

But tracking which states have applications available or have issued payments often doesn't tell the whole story. Even in states with PUA up and running, residents have described feeling lost in the bureaucratic process.

In Florida, for example, only half of the people who have had their applications processed had been paid as of May 13, according to data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

And the 67,000 Floridians who either received payments or had their applications processed were the lucky ones, said Sunday Phillips, a real estate agent in Fort Lauderdale. Phillips first applied for unemployment on April 6 and has yet to hear a peep about the status of her pending application.

"I'm insolvent at this point. Two months without any income, no resources. I have nothing," she said, choking up. "Nothing, like nothing. I have nothing."

"And then when you call, these people are talking on scripts," Phillips said. "I've literally spent eight hours on the phone, trust me, back and forth. You spend your entire day just trying to find some economic relief."

On Wednesday, though, Phillips got a bit of good news. She was able to update details on her unemployment application without the system crashing, she said.

"That's some good news I really needed," Phillips said.

States pressured to build the plane while it’s flying

For many states, getting PUA up and running within the month after the CARES Act passed marked an accomplishment, even though it meant newly-unemployed Americans waited weeks without a paycheck.

In Idaho, getting payments out by May 8 required around-the-clock work from the state's IT crew, said Georgia Smith, a spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Labor.

"In our case, we've just been working really, really hard to try and get the payments out to people as soon as possible, but we've had to really retrofit a lot of our systems to be able to accommodate these programs," Smith said.

PHOTO: Jennifer Majano helps an job seeker fill out an application at a drive up job fair for Allied Universal, May 6, 2020, in Gardena, Calif.
Jennifer Majano helps an job seeker fill out an application at a drive up job fair for Allied Universal, May 6, 2020, in Gardena, Calif.
Chris Carlson/AP

The department has also been careful to avoid granting assistance to people who don't qualify for it, which would force them to pay the federal government back with interest, Smith said.

"Nobody wants that, especially now," she said.

That regulation is why some states have been slow to issue payments, officials say. In Alaska, the first round of payments, sent out May 8, were a small test batch to make sure everything worked well, according to Cathy Muñoz, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

In Arkansas, the PUA system is up and accepting applications, but it's still in the testing phase. Payments are the next step, said Zoë Calkins, communications director for the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, though she didn't provide a timeline.

As of May 9, the state was sitting on 19,230 complete applications.

Other states, like New Hampshire, took a do-it-yourself approach and passed legislation to expand unemployment benefits on a state-wide level in late March, opening unemployment up to many more residents even before the CARES Act passed. Since March 24, New Hampshire has paid $78 million in benefits to people who would otherwise apply for PUA, though it's fronted by the state and will be reimbursed by the Department of Labor, according to Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner of New Hampshire Employment Security.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, where attempts to comply with the federal PUA system have been challenging, the state's application launch on Monday was met with an overwhelming response from people who have been waiting for two months to apply.

"I've called [the Illinois Department of Employment Security] over 200 times today alone," said Koy Cook, a 36-year-old barber in Champaign, the day after the application launched. Cook had received an error message on his application telling him, inaccurately, that he'd already secured benefits.

"So we had to wait all this time just to try, and now it's still going to be this bad?" Cook said.

Eventually, Cook reached an agent who told him to file an appeal, which he did.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Employment Security said they’ve ramped up their call center by 100 representatives, with plans to add another 100 people shortly.

“We understand some applicants are still having trouble connecting with agents, and we continue to improve our processes and expand capacity to ensure everyone is receiving the benefits they are due,” said Rebecca Cisco, a public information officer with the department.

Cisco also said the program was put together in four weeks, though it would’ve taken a year to complete under normal circumstances, and noted that unemployment this year is 11 times higher than it was in March of last year.

The portal has now processed more than 50,000 PUA claims and payments are expected to begin next week, according to Cisco.

But for Cook, it’s been two months since his last paycheck, he told ABC News. Though he's kept up with his utility payments, he's resorted to missing credit card payments in order to pay for other necessities.

"If there's a credit card bill that's due, it's just going to have to be due. I don't have money to pay for those things right now," Cook said. "They'll either be understanding or they won't, but one way or another, there's not anything I could do about it."

For now, Cook said he was more comfortable staying home than going out looking for work and putting himself at risk of the coronavirus. But he's left feeling deeply dismayed with his state government for giving him hope but not following through -- especially at a time when "nothing else" is a sure thing.

"I've been trying to not complain because I get that whatever we're doing right now, and as much as it sucks how much money I've lost sitting at home, I also didn't go get put on a ventilator. So, there's that," he said. "But it's really reached a point where it's like, well, what, what else can I do?"

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Editor's Note: The number of states that have not yet issued PUA payments has been updated to reflect that New Hampshire has not launched PUA, but has been paying residents who would apply for PUA through a separate unemployment program in the state that similarly expands who can receive unemployment.