Correction to This Article
ยท A Feb. 5 Page One article about delays in unemployment benefits incorrectly reported how long Maryland has to pay benefits to remain in compliance with federal guidelines. Maryland's measure of timeliness is based on the percentage of first payments made within 21 days, not 14 days. For the final quarter of 2008, Maryland made 92 percent of first payments within the required 21 days.

Deluge Is Holding Up Benefits to Unemployed

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Thousands of people in the Washington area and hundreds of thousands more across the country are waiting longer than they should for unemployment benefits at a time when they need the money the most because rising joblessness is overwhelming claims offices, records show.

The problem is compounded by a simultaneous decrease in federal funding, which has reduced staffing at some local government offices. The result is that the District and many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are failing to meet federal guidelines that require timely processing of unemployment claims, appeals and benefit payments, the records show.

It's likely to get worse. Figures released yesterday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Washington area unemployment has hit its highest level since August 1993. The jobless rate climbed to 4.7 percent in December from 3 percent a year earlier and 4.4 percent in November. That's well below the national average of 7.2 percent but still a burden for claims offices.

Carrie Kenworthy of Manassas has experienced the problem. She was laid off from her $80,000-a-year job as a mortgage loan officer in 2007. Then she tried to file for an extension in unemployment benefits in July. The Virginia Employment Commission denied her claim three times. Her appeals took more than two months because of a state backlog in cases.

Her benefit extension was approved last week, but not before she had been evicted from her three-bedroom Gainesville townhouse and sold most of her possessions. Yesterday, she was notified that she is being evicted from her new apartment in Manassas.

"You talk about a nightmare," Kenworthy, 45, said as she flipped through the sheaf of documents she used to prove her eligibility for benefits. "We're not on welfare. We're not looking for handouts. We worked for this, and we have to go through all this hardship just to pay our rent."

Officials in all three jurisdictions acknowledge the problems and say they are doing the best they can. But the tightening economy and budget cuts are affecting them as well.

"In short, we just don't have the staff," said Coleman Walsh, chief administrative law judge for the Virginia Employment Commission.

The problems are nationwide. Web sites and phone systems in some states are buckling under the strain. Electronic claim filing systems in New York, North Carolina and Ohio crashed recently because of the heavy volume and technical problems.

The problems have become so severe that legal aid offices in Northern Virginia, for example, report that complaints from people seeking unemployment benefits from the state have tripled since early last year.

"They keep coming," said R. Peyton Whiteley, a lawyer for Legal Services of Northern Virginia, referring to phone calls from distressed, recently laid-off workers. "People can't get to speak to someone, people getting bounced off phone lines, people don't get their money on time, people don't get their money at all. . . . It goes on and on."

Federal guidelines mandate that Virginia offer appeals hearings to 80 percent of denied applicants or employers within 30 days. In December, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the state processed 4.3 percent of the possible 1,319 cases. In Maryland, where federal guidelines require 60 percent compliance in 30 days, the state processed 10 percent. The District, also with a 60 percent requirement, handled 24 percent.

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