New unemployment benefits are here, but laid-off workers are having trouble applying

Nathaniel Floto worked as a printer technician in Fairbanks before work dried up and he was laid off. Now he’s been applying for unemployment benefits for three weeks, without a response from the state. (Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Floto)

Even after new benefits were added to the federal unemployment insurance program, many Alaskans are still reporting difficulty accessing those benefits due to problems with the state’s application system.

It’s been causing headaches for people like Nathaniel Floto, a printer technician in Fairbanks. When coronavirus hit in town, many of the small businesses and schools his company had contracts with shut down.

“There was nothing for me to do for eight hours, and then nothing for me to do for four hours, and then just nothing to do,” he said.

Eventually, his employer was forced to lay him off and helped him get started in applying for unemployment insurance. That was two weeks ago, and he still hasn’t gotten any help.

He’s gotten busy signals from the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development at times, and at others he’s been passed off to employees who say they’ll get back to him. Sometimes he’s been told to email, then is told that he can’t email the department because of issues with sending personal information.

Others report days of being unable to get past the initial Department of Labor phone message.

Many workers have taken to listing frustrations about the unemployment filing system on social media, with stress rising as bills mount and checking accounts dwindle.

The Department of Labor says it’s working hard to fix the issues. Cathy Muñoz, deputy commissioner of the Department of Labor, said it has been a quick adjustment.

“Before the COVID-19 health emergency struck, we were at the lowest level of unemployment in the history of our state. So you can imagine we went from very low filings to very high filings almost overnight,” said Muñoz.

The department has brought in new staff, some of whom came out of retirement, and made IT changes to accommodate recently-passed legislation that added benefits and loosened documentation requirements. Those benefits are included in House Bill 308, which tripled the payment for dependents, extended eligibility periods and will add up to $600 a month in payments.

The new rules will also waive a key requirement of traditional unemployment insurance, which requires that employees be actively seeking new work. But the online application for people who have already applied didn’t reflect those changes as of Wednesday.

Muñoz said the department has quickly brought on new staff to deal with the surge in applications — reported at a record-setting 14,500 for the week ending on March 28. It now has 100 staff working on processing applications, with 50 more to come soon.

They’re making progress, she said.

“We track filings on a weekly basis, so as of March 21 … we processed for that week only 13,774 applications. The week prior to that ending the 14th of March, we processed 7,400 applications,” she said.

But there are still technical limitations which might explain why Alaskans have been kicked off phone lines after being told to call: The system can only hold 250 people on the lines at one time.

“We’re expanding that capacity now, so we hope to be able to address, to more readily be able to respond to people that are online, but we’re doing the best we can,” she said.

So far, that hasn’t helped people like Floto, who applied for the third time on Monday. He’s currently waiting for the department to send his former employer a loss-of-employment verification form, since state law still requires that to be done via snail mail. As of Wednesday, Floto said his employer hadn’t received anything.

He said it’s been frustrating.

“I’m mad because I need help, but at the same time there’s people that need it more than me, and I understand they’re busy,” he said.

On Monday, he did see some updates to the online filing system and was finally able to select “coronavirus” as the reason he lost his job, but otherwise he hadn’t made any progress.

 

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