What to do if you are not getting your unemployment payments.

What to do if you are not getting your unemployment payments.

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The unemployment insurance systems of many states are in a shambles stranding tens of thousands of unemployed citizens as a result of government mandated shutdowns and antiquated/mismanaged systems. 

The Problem

Sudden and massive unemployment

In response to Covid, many states and commonwealths imposed draconian lockdowns on the economy. Almost overnight millions of hospitality workers, transportation workers, factory workers and others found themselves unemployed.

Antiquated systems

The unemployment systems suffered a shock that they simply were not designed to accommodate. The State of New Jersey’s unemployment system was still using COBOL. Some will claim that running a critical system on a 60 year old language isn’t a problem. The fact that systems are running on COBOL is an indicator that the systems were not undergoing continuous improvement.

The state governments seem to have dropped the ball. They continued to do business as usual when an all hands on deck call was needed. They also needed to ‘think out of the box’ but it appears that they clung to their established protocols and regulations.

One example from Pennsylvania.

I applied for unemployment compensation on August 3, 2020 after being let go along with 20 percent of the developers at my organization. I knew that there would be some delay considering the number of people who filed since March of 2020.

The impact of shutdowns on unemployment.

In Pennsylvania restaurants were all but shut down. They were permitted curbside service which was a fraction of their normal traffic. The wait staffs were cut drastically. Dental offices were shut down. The health department made what appeared to to be arbitrary decisions as to which businesses were ‘critical’ and therefore allowed to be open. The following chart shows almost 1 million claims filed in Pennsylvania alone in March 2020 per the PA Unemployment site. Those claims were largely the result of Pennsylvania mandated closures of business.

Week Start DateWeek End DateTotal Initial Claims Count
3/15/20203/21/2020363,000
3/22/20203/28/2020374,056
3/29/20204/4/2020239,077
4/5/20204/11/2020172,733
4/12/20204/18/2020124,633
4/19/20204/25/202082,414
4/26/20205/2/202058,240
5/3/20205/9/202050,299
5/10/20205/16/202041,673
5/17/205/23/2055,374
5/24/205/30/2042,266
5/31/206/6/2045,049
6/7/206/13/2044,341
6/14/206/20/2042,577
6/21/206/27/2045,261
6/28/207/4/2044,086
7/5/207/11/2044,798
​7/12/20​7/18/2037,986
​7/19/20​7/25/20​35,808
​7/26/20​8/1/20​29,371
​8/2/20​8/8/2027,094​
​8/9/20​8/15/2025,584
​8/16/20​8/22/20​27,510
​8/23/20​8/29/2024,883
​8/30/20​9/5/2022,626
​9/6/20​9/12/2021,747
​9/13/20​9/19/2022,762
​9/20/20​9/26/2022,955
​9/27/20​10/3/20​19,844
​10/4/20​10/10/2020,251
​10/11/20​10/17/20​19,223
​Total Claims2,227,521

While the administration in Pennsylvania was shutting down businesses it seems that they failed to respond to a crisis that they were creating with unemployment.

Using my available reserves

I had some funds to cover me including savings and a payout for unused vacation time. I had to start using my 401k which wasn’t quite as bad a hit for me since I am at an age where I won’t get killed with early withdrawal penalties.

Something’s wrong.

About mid September I started to become concerned. I was eating through my 401k. My unemployment dashboard was showing no changes. I had received a letter requesting information about my sideline business. I report my income as a good citizen under a schedule C. I sent the requested schedule C via email the same day I received the letter.

Trying to get help.

Emails – “Expect a response in four to eight weeks”

I wanted to follow up. However, the phone lines were jammed. I tried an email and it said “Please allow 4 to 8 weeks for a response”. I had to read that a number of times to make sure I read it correctly. FOUR TO EIGHT WEEKS? Why the hell wasn’t our governor, Tom Wolf, taking action to fix that? By the way, I never received a reply.

Busy Busy Busy (x300) – Can’t get through on the phones.

I downloaded a redialer app for my cell phone. I tried that for a couple of days averaging about 400 dials with no answer. The problem with that was that it was tying up my phones when I was getting an average of 3-4 calls per day from recruiters.

A Facebook support group

I joined a Facebook chat group. This was a group founded by individuals to try to mutually support people who had issues with Pennsylvania’s unemployment. They were NOT part of the state government. After looking at the posts, I found that IF you got through on the phone, you could expect an hour or more on hold.

Chat – All agents are busy, go away.

I tried the chat but kept getting a “We are really busy, try again later”

Recap – No luck with email, chat or phone calls.

To recap, email, chat and phone calls were not even getting me connected much less getting an answer as to where my money was.

Contact your state representative.

The reason I started with the state representative was that they typically have a smaller constituency than a state senator.

They told me that they had no direct contact with the unemployment offices but that they could put me on ‘a list’.

Another week went by and no results so I tried Careerlink.

Careerlink

Pennsylvania has an agency called CareerLink that helps people find work. Someone granted them authorization to have some limited access to the unemployment records. They were trying to help. However, most of the people were working from home. Apparently Pennsylvania did not have a way to allow them to dial from a Pennsylvania Government number, they were using their private phones. The workers were using a caller ID blocker which I can understand.

I have my landline set up to reject calls from numbers with a blocked caller ID. I had tried opening that up but was flooded with a ridiculous amount of spam calls.

My cell phone would take caller ID blocked calls but I was getting an insane number of calls from offshore recruiters. Perhaps 10 to 20 per day. It was difficult to distinguish between a worthless offshore recruiter call and someone trying to help me with my unemployment.

When I finally connected with them they were not able to get a definitive answer as to why I wasn’t getting my payments.

The State Senator

I also contacted my state senator’s office. The contact there was very friendly and seemed to be working hard. However, they were also limited to ‘putting people on a list’.

Try the Newspaper

At this point I was becoming very concerned. My forecasts were showing that an epic crash and burn was in my immediate future.

I contacted a columnist at our county’s newpaper. He came out that day and did a substantial column on my situation and the unemployment situation in general. That got noticed by the state representative and senator.

Situation: CRITICAL

All this time I had no idea as to why my funds were being held. The amount was several thousand dollars. Without that I was heading toward losing my house and my Cobra health insurance.

The light at the end of the tunnel.

Around mid October, 10 weeks after filing, I was able to get through on chat. I took the better part of a day to keep retrying for an agent. The chat has an annoying half baked AI assistant called Paula. I had to keep doing a dance with Paula asking for an agent.

FINALLY, I got through to a real person on the other end. Keep in mind that I had to ignore calls from recruiters with potential jobs while I was focused on just getting a human being.

The agent said that my case had gone to an examiner about 2 days prior. That was somewhat encouraging. At least the logjam was budging.

The examiner.

I was wrapping up my job search at about 430 pm on a Friday. This was about 4 days from when the examiner supposedly got my case… and 10 weeks plus after I initially filed. I got a call on my landline and the caller ID indicated that it was from Pennsylvania’s unemployment office. Thankfully, I was there to take the call and not starting to work in my yard.

The examiner was professional. She asked a number of questions. It turned out that the holdup was my sideline business. The amount of sales per year is way less than what a typical Avon rep makes. She saw that I had emailed my schedule C.

After about a half hour she said she would be releasing the funds I had not received.

Money in the bank.

The following Wednesday I woke up to a deposit with the funds that were owed to me. A couple of days later, I saw a normal bi-weekly payment. At last things were where they should be.

Lessons Learned:

Try to keep a cash/liquidity reserve if possible.

I made conscious decisions to forgo spending in order to build some reserves. For example, I am driving a 15 year old Ford Explorer. I don’t need a brand new vehicle for a status symbol. As long as it is reliable, I’ll save the money. Also, there are life events that arise that require spending money you would not otherwise spend.

I was venting on the Facebook page and a woman replied with “Well, that is your fault for being stupid and not having three months of savings”. I found that she was posting similar statements in reply to other posts. A quick check of her profile indicated that she was an activist whose political ideology aligned with our governor’s. My guess is that she was trying to run interference or just disrupt the group. I am NOT saying that this was at the direction of the governor but that it was a freelance effort.

My reply was along the lines of “Well, that is a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that? Oh wait, I did.. 10 weeks is almost three months isn’t it? Oh, and sorry I had to spend some money on (take your pick medical expenses, funeral expenses, unforseen disasters).

Document everything

I have been making a diligent effort to use electronic copies whenever possible and to scan and file/shred paper copies. When I had to provide my schedule-c, it only took a minute to find the document and email it.

I also kept records of who I contacted and any replies that I received. I didn’t want to call the state rep and senator every day but I did want to keep contact with them.

Look for signals that indicate your claim is sidelined. This was difficult because of the inability to make contact and a poorly designed website as described below.

You may depend on a system that is poorly designed.

The Pennsylvania Unemployment website is a disgrace. Users simply don’t get information that they need to know how far along their claim is in the process. There is no excuse for a system that can’t tell the user something such as “Your claim in on hold pending an examiner review regarding your sideline business” or “An examiner received your Schedule C on mm/dd/yyyy”

The navigation is beyond hideous and seems to be randomly thrown together. In many cases, the back button will not take you to a previous screen. I can understand this in the case of a transaction but these are non-transactional pages.

You are just a pawn.

Sometimes, things are beyond your control. In a situation such as the current Covid-19 crisis, there is a lot of disruption. In the case of unemployment, it apparently was not a major priority for the governor and his administration.

Over 2 years of diligent hard work with my employer was wiped out because the organization ran out of funds. Bye – So Long, See you later.

Large events limit options

In normal circumstances, you might be able to ask family members for help. However, a major event such as massive Covid-19 related government mandated shutdowns hit the people who might have been able to help.

In a normal economy, there would probably be more jobs available. The shutdowns resulted in a huge number of unemployed people competing for available jobs.

Summary

  • You can plan but you can’t account for large scale black swan events. You need to be agile
  • Do not assume that a bureaucracy or system will function as expected.
  • If you don’t see indicators of movement, follow up politely but firmly.
  • If you aren’t getting results from one area, try another.
  • THE SQUEAKY WHEEL GETS THE GREASE. Had I not been persistent in following up, I probably would still not have received my funds.
  • Stay optomistic. It is easy to become angry. However, anger doesn’t accomplish results. Stay focused on your goal.
What to do if you are not getting your unemployment payments.
geralt / Pixabay

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