Jobless Checks for Millions Delayed as States Struggle
“The worst day was when my daughter was born,” he said. “I had no clothes for her, and no car seat.”
While federal rules require states to decide 60 percent of appeals cases within a month, in recent years, California has met that deadline for just 5 percent. A report by the state auditor last year found the appeals board rife with nepotism and mismanagement.
Mr. Coronel won the appeal, but is soothing a marriage strained by a six-month wait. “It’s extremely stressful when you don’t know how you’re going to support your family,” he said.
Nationally, the program is the worst financial shape since the early 1980s, when back-to-back recessions left more than half the states borrowing from the federal government. Tax increases and benefit restraints gradually rebuilt the funds, then states changed course and pushed taxes well below historical levels.
From 1960 to 1990, the tax rate averaged about 1.1 percent of overall payroll. Over the last decade, it fell to 0.65 percent. That represents a tax cut of 40 percent.
Measured against a decade’s payroll, that saved employers $165 billion. But by 2007, when the recession began, the average state had just six months of recession-level benefits in reserve, half the recommended sum.
“The attitude became, ‘We don’t need a firehouse — we can buy hoses when the fire starts,’ ” said Wayne Vroman of the Urban Institute, a Washington research group.
Some analysts defend the tax cuts, saying they helped both employers and workers, by spurring the economy and creating jobs.
“Lower tax rates make it easier to attract business,” said Doug Holmes, president of UWC, a group that advocates on behalf of employers. “We don’t want to spend a whole lot of time beating ourselves up because we didn’t raise taxes enough. Nobody anticipated a recession this size.”
A big reason the reserves fell, Mr. Holmes said, is that the jobless now spend more time on the rolls — 15 weeks in recent years, up from 13 weeks several decades ago. Each extra week costs the program about $3 billion a year. The solution, he said, is stronger job placement provisions.
But others see an irresponsible past that now promises future pain.
“Workers who had nothing to do with the funds becoming insolvent are going to be asked to pay for that with benefit cuts,” said Andrew Stettner, an analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights group. “That’s the worst thing states can do — it takes money straight out of the economy.”
Among those who say timely benefits are essential is Mr. Kottwitz, the Arizona cabinet maker, who lost his job just before Christmas. He filed a claim and promptly received a debit card, with no money on it. It took him weeks to reach a program clerk, who told him to keep waiting.
“They said, ‘We’re behind — be patient,’ ” he said.
With little savings, no family nearby, and a ninth-grade education, Mr. Kottwitz, 42, had limited options. He got $100 a month in food stamps, collected cans and applied for jobs. When his landlord put him out, he moved to a shelter so overcrowded he spent his first few nights on the ground.
“I felt like I was the scum of the earth,” Mr. Kottwitz said.
In March, the shelter referred him to Ellen Katz, a lawyer at the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, an advocacy group, who secured his benefits. By the time the money arrived, Mr. Kottwitz had lost nearly 40 pounds. His first stop was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Now back in an apartment, he said he was sharing his story in the hope that someone might read it and offer him a job.
“You think that someone would have seen this coming and been more prepared,” he said.