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Months later, more than 1 million Americans are still waiting for unemployment aid

Many jobless Americans are asked for extensive proof of their identity. Some are told they must wait months to speak with a senior administrator about their case.

Josh Vaughn, 25, visits a city park in Savannah, Ga., on Dec. 20, 2020. He has been waiting months for unemployment aid since he lost his job as a hotel bartender in March. (Stephen B. Morton for The Washington Post)

Bartender Josh Vaughn served the last drink at a Hilton hotel bar in Savannah on March 14. He was furloughed the next day. The company promptly filed paperwork for him to receive unemployment aid, yet he spent more than nine months waiting for the money.

Vaughn is among more than 1.2 million Americans stuck waiting months for desperately needed aid as states struggle to catch up with backlogs of unemployment claims stretching back to March, a Post analysis showed.

In April, Vaughn received a letter saying he qualified for $320 a week, but then his file was put on hold until he proved his identity. The fraud check process took nearly six months to clear up. But Vaughn, who is now decorating cakes and stocking shelves at a grocery store, a job that pays about half what he made as a bartender, was still waiting in December for his unemployment benefits.

“It’s just so unbelievably difficult to get unemployment. It shouldn’t be this hard, especially at a time like this when millions of us are out of work,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn finally received $14,000 in unemployment on Dec. 31 — a few days after The Post inquired about his case with the state of Georgia.

The Post’s calculation reflects 703,000 pending appeals across the country and 529,000 people waiting on a benefits decision in the states that publicly share that information or that responded to a request for comment.

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People’s claims have been held up for months at times for something as simple as a typo or uploading a scan of a driver’s license instead of a photo. Most delays are the result of three key factors: extensive fraud prevention checks, antiquated computer systems and applications being flagged for extra scrutiny. Claims set aside for manual review often take months to resolve.

The holdup in sending out unemployment aid has caused families to fall severely behind on rent, cancel medical treatments and struggle to buy food, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who have yet to receive any money despite applying for unemployment in the spring or summer.

The Post spoke to Americans about the stresses of an uncertain income during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

The stimulus bill that President Trump signed over the holidays includes an extra $300 a week for the unemployed until mid-March, but that additional money won’t help people who are still “pending” in the unemployment system.

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The fact that so many are still waiting for their claims to be processed underscores how unprepared the United States was to deal with this large-scale crisis, analysts say.

“The unemployment insurance system has been unfair,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “In Europe, they’re paying unemployment through company payrolls, which is a lot simpler and faster. Here, the system has to handle millions of individual cases.”

The Post contacted 20 state unemployment offices. Most stressed that they have doubled or tripled staffing levels, worked weekends and contracted with third parties to process applications as quickly as possible. But Labor Department data shows only eight states are processing the bulk of new applications and sending out payments in three weeks, which was the standard time before the pandemic.

“We are still dealing with twice the normal number of claims even today, nine months into the pandemic, while simultaneously continuing to plow through the record onslaught of claims that came in the door from March to June,” said Bret Crow, communications director at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

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Ohio has hired 150 new unemployment claim adjudicators and more than 1,000 call center agents. Even so, Ohio is among many states that have still not been able to achieve pre-pandemic processing times.

New Jersey is another state that has been beefing up staff and upgrading its systems. But unemployed people still fall through the cracks.

Martin Jones, 39, of Camden, N.J., lost his security guard job in late May and applied for unemployment in June. But there was a glitch: New Jersey kept sending him letters asking why he wanted to resurrect an old claim from the summer of 2019. Despite numerous phone calls explaining he was applying for aid in 2020, it has not been fixed. He was told to refile in September, which he did, but he’s still waiting for his first payment.

“The very last person I talked to in November basically told me I should keep my fingers crossed and hope it eventually goes through,” Jones said. “I haven’t received a penny.”

Jones is diabetic and has been relying on charity from family members to buy the food and medicine he needs. In a recent trip to the store, he didn’t have enough money for toothpaste and deodorant.

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Angela Delli Santi, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, declined to comment on Jones’s case, but she said the state is seeing a lot of applications with missing information or a “complicating factor” that “often requires the assistance of an experienced agent.”

State unemployment offices stressed that most people still waiting for aid don’t qualify for the regular unemployment aid program. Instead, these people believe they qualify for the new program Congress created in March called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, that is meant to help gig workers, self-employed workers and parents who had to stop working to take care of a sick relative or watch a school-aged child when schools shut down in-person education.

States had to implement this new program from scratch in the spring when they were receiving millions of applications each week. Many states are struggling to figure out what proof is acceptable to show a gig worker lost their job because of the pandemic or whether a parent truly left a job to care for a child. Unemployment aid has typically replaced a little less than half of a worker’s prior wages, but gig workers often have wages that fluctuate a lot from week to week, another challenge that requires case-by-case calculations.

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Chantel Clark is a mom caught in this PUA limbo. She worked at Macy’s for years and was furloughed in March. Both her dad and her father-in-law died of the coronavirus in the spring. Despite her fears of the virus, when Macy’s asked her to return to work in June, she went. Then the summer camp for her autistic son closed, leaving Clark and her husband without child care. Clark, 38, says she tried to work out something with Macy’s but ultimately had to resign to watch her son.

Clark would not have been eligible for unemployment insurance before the pandemic because she voluntarily left her job, but PUA covers parents who were not able to work because of their children’s care needs or school shutdowns stemming from the pandemic.

“I filed for unemployment insurance at the end of July and I haven’t received a dime,” said Clark, who lives in Alpharetta, Ga. She and her husband recently had to sell one of their two vehicles because they ran out of savings and needed money.

When Clark finally got through to someone in Georgia’s unemployment office, they told her the computer system showed she quit her job, so a senior manager would determine whether she’s eligible for PUA. Clark was told a manager would call her to discuss her case in February 2021 — seven months after she initially filed a claim.

Clark received a call last week after The Post inquired about her case, but she still has not received any money.

“I honestly just want to give up. It’s so not worth the stress,” she said.

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Investigations into why someone left their last job are taking much longer during the pandemic. In November 2019, 90 percent were resolved within a month. Now only 40 percent are done in a month. In Georgia, 75 percent of cases like Clark’s are taking more than 10 weeks to resolve, Labor Department data shows.

But even people with more straightforward job loss situations are having problems.

Angie Ivey, 31, of Atlanta is a mother of three who was laid off from her job in May at a mental health center because so few patients were coming in. She applied for regular unemployment and was denied. She then applied for PUA, but her case has been pending for months.

“My unemployment is still pending since August and there is nowhere to turn,” Ivey said. “You call and wait on hold for hours. Then they hang up or give you a message that says, ‘phone system not working.’”

She was recently informed there was an “IT issue” with her case and they needed to manually override it to approve her, but she has yet to receive any money. Ivey, a widow, is $3,000 behind on rent. The family is barely surviving on lunch meat and bread from a nearby church food pantry.

Several Democratic state representatives sent a letter this month to Georgia’s attorney general requesting an investigation into Georgia’s inability to pay claims in a timely manner.

Mark Butler, Georgia’s commissioner of labor, said his office has been working quickly to get money out, but it has also experienced a spike in fraudulent claims. More than 4.1 million applications have been processed, but 111,000 were from people who were fired or quit, which requires extra review, and more than 31,000 have been flagged as potentially fraudulent, he said.

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“A huge portion of the issues we have seen with claims stem from individuals who have quit, have been fired, or have not had a job in the past year who believe they are owed benefits from the state regardless of their separation reason,” Butler said in a statement. “We are responsible for making lawful benefit determinations based on the evidence presented in each case.”

The Trump administration has made fraud prevention a top priority, noted Peter Ganong, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago. But it has slowed the distribution of aid.

“I think we would be better served by focusing on getting benefits out to people who need them and getting them out quickly,” Ganong said.

It’s a difficult balancing act for states. Bank of America estimates that California paid as much as $2 billion in fraudulent claims. At the same time, a report by California’s Employment Development Department Strike Team found that one simplistic fraud-detection technique redirected about 1.4 million claims to manual processing. About 0.02 percent of the claims processed were found to be fraudulent.

Efforts to prevent fraud can often hinder legitimate applicants from aid.

Michelle Stoltenberg of Pittsburgh thought she had uploaded all the required ID documents: driver’s license, passport, gas bill, electric bill, birth certificate and landline phone bill. But when she called to check, Pennsylvania’s unemployment office told her a scan of driver’s license wasn’t acceptable; she needed to photograph it. She did that. Then she was told she needed to upload a photo of the back of her birth certificate — even though it’s blank. She did that, too.

“I applied in July. This has gone on for five months,” said Stoltenberg, who has fallen behind on utility bills and put off a surgery. “My trust in my government is just fundamentally broken now.”

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Stoltenberg, 44, works live music events in Pittsburgh, which stopped in March. She is owed more than $10,000 in back pay from Pennsylvania’s unemployment office. Her former employer, a law professor and her state senator are all advocating for her, yet she was not paid until Dec. 31 — just after The Post asked about her case.

Another holdup is the appeals process. When people are denied unemployment, they can appeal, but getting a hearing can take months. Undecided appeals in the United States were open for an average of 82 days at the end of November, according to Labor Department data.

Rhett Wilkinson is a prime example. The 31-year-old freelance writer has worked for several years doing various writing gigs for companies and newspapers. He had a good job before the pandemic hit, but that firm told him in a note on March 18 that “with everything going on in the world right now, we are putting this project on hold” and that he was no longer needed.

Wilkinson, who lives in Utah, applied for PUA in April. He was denied in late August because the state said it wasn’t clear whether he lost his job because of the pandemic. He filed for an appeal but did not get a hearing until Nov. 23 — just before Thanksgiving.

“The administrative law judge reversed the decision upon my appeal, but I still have not gotten any money,” Wilkinson said.

State unemployment agencies argue that they are doing the best they can. Many states report hiring hundreds of new adjudicators to handle appeals.

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The Oregon Employment Department tripled the number of adjudicators on staff and winnowed down its backlog from 52,000 claims in September to 12,600 in December, despite a coronavirus outbreak at one of the department’s offices.

Other states have tried more creative solutions. Wisconsin partnered with Google Cloud, while Kentucky and Pennsylvania hired accounting firm Ernst and Young to help work through their backlogs. California stopped accepting applications for two weeks in the fall to work through its backlog. Virginia, facing a potential lawsuit, has begun paying 58,000 workers before their cases are adjudicated — on the condition that they pay the money back if they are found to be ineligible.

State unemployment offices are often saddled with decades-old computer systems that delay the implementation of new programs. Oregon was the last state in the nation to waive a one-week waiting period for benefits because it took seven months to reprogram its computer system. Oregon, like many other states, uses a computer system based in a 1960s-era programming language called COBOL.

The latest relief package passed by Congress did not include any additional funding to help state unemployment offices upgrade their computers. An early proposal included $1 billion for such upgrades but that measure was scrapped from the final bill.

“It’s crazy our computer systems couldn’t be programmed to do the right thing,” said Glenn Hubbard, former chief economist for George W. Bush and a Columbia Business School professor. “Something will happen again someday and we shouldn’t be in this position.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Congress recently allocated $1 billion to upgrade computer systems. That measure did not make it into the final bill.