04.15.20

Unemployment escalation has been extraordinary in Montana

From the Here's how state and local governments are responding to the coronavirus pandemic series

March in Montana: In like a lion, out like a dude in the unemployment line.

There were more than 31,000 Montanans with unemployment payment requests on Sunday, April 12, the highest single-day number since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers tend to spike every seven days, but the weekly high point before the arrival of the pandemic was rarely higher than 5,500.

Since all but essential businesses shut down and people began staying home under order Montana’s governor, the number of people seeking unemployment has been extraordinary.

“Between March 16 and April 7, 76,042 payments were issued, accounting for $25,307,084.91,” said Lauren Lewis, a Department of Labor and Industry spokesperson in an email late Friday. “In addition, there are still claims that are being adjudicated. This is an unprecedented volume of payments that our staff have been able to process over such a short period of time.”

Labor’s unemployment claims processing phone line has received 1.042 million calls from mid-March to April 8. (For perspective, for the entire month of February the calls totaled 13,778.)

The response to the demand has required a significant reshuffling of resources to within the department. More than 200 Department of Labor workers have been reassigned to help unemployment claims processing.

And claims keep coming. Demand for unemployment insurance has not only ratcheted up among workers who normally qualify, it’s increased because people who were previously ineligible for unemployment insurance have been written into the program by Congress in an attempt to soften the hard economic landing of a flash-recession.

Self-employed people, independent contractors and gig economy workers previously didn’t qualify for unemployment, but now they do. Additionally, Congress made unemployment available to people who had job offers and would have started work soon but have since lost the opportunity. Some of those newly qualified people are just now becoming eligible for benefits because it takes up to 14 days after a bill becomes law to set up the rules for the new unemployment terms.

Tuesday, marked the first day that an additional $600 a week in benefits was added to unemployment payments. Any person receiving unemployment for claims filed between March 29 through July 25 gets the additional $600. The bump in unemployment wasn’t without political controversy in the Senate. Republicans, concerned that the extra $600 would result in better compensation for some jobless individuals than their previous salaries, had voted for an amendment to cap the amount at paycheck levels.

The amendment, which all Republicans supported, except for Sen. Cory, Gardner, of Colorado, failed. Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia was the only Democrat to support the amendment, which didn’t change the outcome for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. After the amendment failed, Republicans joined

Democrats in unanimously voting to pass the CARES Act with the $600-a-week unemployment increase included.

"Montana workers need relief immediately. I fought to secure an additional $600 a week for folks on unemployment insurance on top of what they already would take home. We must get this important relief into the hands of Montana workers as soon as possible," Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, said in an email.

Congress also extended the number of weeks a person can draw unemployment by 13 weeks. Previously, the number of weeks a person could receive unemployment was capped at 28 weeks.

“We understand the difficulties of many Montanans who are out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and we know that these benefits are providing relief,” said Brenda Nordlund, DLI acting director. “We are working as hard as we can to make sure that everyone receives their benefits as quickly as possible. This is an important step in employing the assistance provided as part of the CARES Act. We continue to urge patience as the department works to implement all the components of this vital legislation.”

The state is still adding new federal terms to its claims processing system so it can handle claims from self-employed people. Similar issues are being worked for people on unemployment who have previously exhausted their normal benefits.

But it’s important to get claims started right away for someone who thinks he might be eligible for unemployment, but isn’t sure yet. Unemployment claims can be filed at MontanaWorks.gov or by calling the claims processing center at 406-444-2545.

Self-employed individuals can prepare by gathering their proof of income documents together — recent tax returns, 1099s, whatever documents they have that can show past earnings, DLI advises.

There is federal assistance on the way to states dealing with a rapid increase in unemployment claims.

“The Phase Two relief package included $1 billion in administration grant funding that will go to states for things like increased staffing, and IT improvements, which will help decrease some of those wait times,” said Katie Schoettler, communications director for Sen. Steve Daines.

Half of the money is to be issued to all states. The other half was to be distributed to states that had experienced at least a 10% increase in unemployment claims. Montana is potentially eligible for up to $2.6 million to upscale unemployment service, Lewis said.

The need for upscaling the response is real. The average time on hold for someone calling Montana’s unemployment claims line was a half hour last week, according to the Department of Labor. Of those 1 million calls to unemployment from mid-March to April 8, the number of calls answered was 9,710. That number does not include the calls unemployment officials made out to Montana jobless to get claims moving, Lewis said.

“The challenge with unemployment is the system is getting blasted, and making sure they’re able to get their documentation in is really what we’re hearing a lot about with the hold up right now,” Sen. Jon Tester said in a press call last week. “Although I will tell you, I’ve also heard some good things, too, that Montana is doing a pretty good job of getting back to people and getting those unemployment documents that they need to get them in line.”

The amendment, which all Republicans supported, except for Sen. Cory, Gardner, of Colorado, failed. Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia was the only Democrat to support the amendment, which didn’t change the outcome for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. After the amendment failed, Republicans joined Democrats in unanimously voting to pass the CARES Act with the $600-a-week unemployment increase included.

"Montana workers need relief immediately. I fought to secure an additional $600 a week for folks on unemployment insurance on top of what they already would take home. We must get this important relief into the hands of Montana workers as soon as possible," Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, said in an email.


By:  Tom Lutey
Source: Billings Gazette