Last year, WorkForce West Virginia was processing about 3,500 unemployment claims a month. This year, they’re averaging 40,000 a month due to shutdowns from the coronavirus pandemic.
The increased volume flooded the agency and they had to significantly adjust how they process claims, which included special provisions for people out of work because of the virus.
Acting WorkForce commissioner Scott Adkins spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting about the challenges his agency has had adjusting to the unexpected spike in unemployment claims and how they are addressing criticisms that people are not being paid quickly.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lofton: How has WorkForce had to adjust to accommodate for the increased volume?
Adkins: Well, we've had to adjust on a bunch of different fronts. We've had to look at all the technology that we currently use. We've ramped that up significantly. We've added call center staff and additional call centers. We worked with Amazon on cell phone technology. We have a chatbot that's supposed to be integrated into our system. We're working with some external partners to provide resources. We've had to work with a vendor to stand up an independent system to process those Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims. So it's been pretty significant.
Lofton: We've heard anecdotally that people are experiencing long wait times and that the pandemic unemployment assistance specifically is backed up. Is that true and what is contributing to some of the very long wait times?
Adkins: WorkForce West Virginia, like every other state waited several weeks after the Cares Act was signed by President Trump for guidance and rules for all the different programs that were covered in the Cares Act, including the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. So we were in the top 10 or 12 states getting the application piece up and running. Now with that, we weren't able to test it as much as we would have liked to. Normally for us to stand up a system like that we're looking at six months to a year to test it, retest it, to make sure that we don't have issues.
There were two issues with the PUA system itself that occurred on May 12th and May 13th. There were a little over 5,000 people scheduled to be paid those days. And a couple things happened: The system itself took away digits from the folks who had debit cards, it added digits to the folks who had signed up for direct deposit. So basically nobody on the 13th was paid that should have been paid.
And so that created some significant issues for WorkForce. We had folks calling in and saying, “My dashboard on the PUA system says I've been paid, have I been paid?” And we would look at our system and work with our bank, which happens to be Key Bank and Key Bank said, “No, they've been paid, we sent the money to their accounts or to their to their banks,” but it took about two or three days to figure out that although the money was sent to those banks, and accounts, those accounts were wrong, those debit cards were wrong. And so for that money to come back, and for us to realize what was happening [took a couple days].
Keep in mind, there's still quite a few folks who have significant issues on their claims. In other words, maybe they had wages in 2019. So we'd have to take a look at that or maybe they had multiple employers, we would have to take a look at that. Maybe they didn't have enough documentation to support the fact they were self-employed, or they're an independent contractor. And so there are still quite a few claims, I don't have a number, but there's still quite a few claims that we have to handle manually before those funds will be released.
Lofton: We're also hearing from people who are having a hard time getting ahold of somebody on the phone to ask questions or get their questions through. Are you guys working to resolve those issues? And are you hearing that on your end as well?
Adkins: Well we are hearing that, that is the case. We have over 150 people answering the phones right now. We took on an external call center this week that's added some capacity to that. The problem is the PUA program in and of itself is very complex. And so it's not only do you have enough people to answer the phones, but it's do you have enough people who understand unemployment, who understand the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, or the Cares Act to be able to take those calls.
And so I understand the frustration that people have, when they do get through that sometimes they get through to an agent that may or may not have that knowledge or that skill set to be able to answer that question. So we are working [on it], we're very aware of it.
And I think as we go through this, and we get some of the kinks worked out, in the PUA system, the call volumes will decrease and the anxiety of folks waiting to get paid will decrease. And we've been communicating with them through the PUA portal as well, trying to give them updates, letting them know you know, what's going on, what to expect next, and so forth.
Lofton: We're also hearing from people who are eligible to return to work, their employers have now reopened. But they are concerned about returning for their own health but the health of those that they come in close contact with. What is the guidance for those who are on unemployment, their workplace reopens, but they're not comfortable with going to work yet?
Adkins: There are several provisions that would allow folks to remain on unemployment if they meet that criteria. Now their employer can contest that criteria, contest the attestation that one of their employees meets that criteria. If that occurs, then what WorkForce will do is adjudicate those claims. And so that particular employee would have to provide medical documentation to support the rationale for not returning to work.
I can also tell you care that under the Cares Act, being afraid or fearful of catching COVID-19 is a disqualification for unemployment benefits. Now, the rub here, for employees and for businesses is even though they may be eligible for unemployment, the employment relationship between the employee and the employer can be terminated by the employer, which creates an employment law issue. And so there's a lot to consider. If you're unemployed and your employer calls you back to work, you need to probably go to work if you can. Otherwise, there could be some significant repercussions for you.
Lofton: Are most of the dollars flowing through WorkForce right now federal dollars, or is the state contributing and if the state is contributing, how long can the state keep up its contribution without economic stimulus?
Adkins: Yeah, if you're under the Cares Act, if you're eligible for regular unemployment, which is unemployment that would be paid for by the unemployment trust fund. In West Virginia, you have to apply for regular unemployment. You can't be eligible for state employment and qualify for PUA, for example, in the Cares Act. The state trust fund right now, we have lost about 120 million dollars since the pandemic started. We have funds probably to get us through sometime in June that we have worked with our federal partners at the US [Department of Labor] as well. And we have funding secure to continue that. So there's not a risk to the trust fund necessarily.
Lofton: So starting in June, there will be a federal grant that will basically bolster the state trust fund?
Adkins: Yeah, it's not technically a grant. It's a loan. It's a no-interest loan. Now what WorkForce is hoping, like every other state in the union, that the federal government's going to provide that either as a forgivable loan or provide resources to bolster the trust by moving forward. So right now it's like a line of credit, we have access to a line of credit that would ensure the trust will remain solvent.
Lofton: And how long does that line of credit extend?
Adkins: Well, right now [it] extends through the end of this year. As the economy improves, you expect the unemployment rates to decrease. The rate for April came out on Tuesday of this week, and it was 15.2 percent. I expect that number to go up probably three or four more percentage points before the end of this month. So I'm not sure where that's going to peak out, but it's going to be substantially higher than where it is right now.
Lofton: And my understanding is we're talking about unemployment rates that we haven't seen since the Great Depression?
Adkins: Yeah, this is going to be the highest unemployment rate West Virginia has ever faced. And if you think about 20+ percent unemployment, you have to imagine that it's going to take a while to get back. And even if the economy comes back, there's going to be significant job [loss] and unfortunately, a lot of small businesses that don't come back. And so that's going to create a strain on state resources as well as federal and local resources.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.