money wearing face mask, coronavirus, COVID-19

Phone lines are tied up, and answers seem to be trickling in only a little bit at a time. Desperate for clarity, unemployed Hoosiers are relying on each other.

The Facebook group “Indiana Unemployment Peer to Peer Information” has nearly 1,800 members and gets dozens of posts per day.

One woman said she emailed 79 claims investigators at once about an employer stopping her unemployment payment.

Someone else wanted answers, too.

“will you send email list?” he commented. [sic]

More than 75,000 people made unemployment claims in the week ending on April 18. It was the third consecutive week of that number declining. To put that in perspective, though, there were 2,719 claims made during the third week of April last year, according to state data.

Nationwide, a record 22 million Americans had applied for unemployment benefits in the four weeks through April 11.

This has been a unique recession because the government is essentially trying to incentivize not working — or at least not working around others — due to the current danger of being in a physical workplace with other people.

That means a temporary jolt to unemployment benefits.

In addition to traditional unemployment insurance, Congress created a temporary federal unemployment insurance program — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA — for people who wouldn’t normally be eligible for benefits.

The program is part of the federal CARES Act.

Eligible workers now include gig workers, those who are self-employed and those who don’t have a sufficient work history to qualify for benefits.

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD) had to create a new system in order to implement the federally-funded program, so applications for PUA just recently became available online.

Applicants must first apply for traditional unemployment insurance and get denied.

For those who applied for PUA as soon as it was possible on April 24, DWD Commissioner Fred Payne said the first payments are targeted for May 8.

The PUA program also provides an additional $600 to existing unemployment benefits through July. That money, which applies to anyone who qualifies for unemployment benefits, is taxable and subject to child support withholding.

The $600 payments are effective back to March 29 and will be paid retroactively. Applicants who qualify for traditional unemployment benefits or PUA don’t need to do anything else to get the $600.

Some who were already receiving regular unemployment benefits already started seeing the $600 payments. For the first weekend those payments were added, the department paid out $276 million over a three-day period. That’s $46 million more than what the department paid out in unemployment benefits total last year.

The average wait time for benefits is about 21 days, Payne said, but he noted that can vary significantly.

Those receiving benefits must file a voucher each week in order to keep receiving the benefits. It’s recommended to file vouchers on a Tuesday or later to take stress off of the DWD’s system, which is experiencing high traffic volumes.

As of April 27, the department had already received about 65,000 PUA applications, according to Payne, though some were duplicates from regular unemployment insurance. 

The federal CARES Act also provides 39 weeks of unemployment benefits, 13 more than normal.

Payne said during a recent COVID-19 briefing he’s not worried about the state running out of money to pay benefits. Indiana has a little under $650 million in a trust fund to pay those benefits, he said, and there is federal money available in case that fund gets too low.

One of the common complaints from those looking for answers about unemployment benefits is how difficult it’s been to actually talk with someone from the DWD.

Payne said it’s best for people to use the self-help tool on the website because it takes a “massive” amount of time to answer those questions over a phone call. The department has been hiring and training more staff to keep up with demand. 

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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