Personal Finance

'I may be homeless once this is all done': Some Americans aren't getting unemployment checks

Key Points
  • The historic $2.2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed in March beefed up unemployment benefits, increasing weekly payments and expanding the pool of eligible workers.
  • An avalanche of claims has overwhelmed state offices, leaving many people unable to access the money. 
  • Those delays could leave Sandra Speier homeless and Dawn Hormanski without her medications. 
Sandra Speier, a Miami resident, filed an application for unemployment benefits a month ago. Her application has been pending ever since. Here, she is pictured with her son.

Sandra Speier is among the millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits in recent weeks.

But, a month later, her application is still in limbo.

The Miami resident, a single mother and self-employed personal trainer, submitted an online application for jobless benefits on March 23. It's been "pending" ever since and has yet to be processed by the state's office. 

In the meantime, she explored low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration as a fallback if the unemployment delays persist. But those options have, too, failed to bring her cash, due to federal funding that's delayed or dried up. 

"I am beyond frustrated with what's been going on," Speier said. "Nothing has happened."

At a time when Americans are desperate for financial aid, Speier's story shows that many are slipping through the cracks, with the historic $2.2 trillion stimulus package failing to reach many of its intended recipients.

The law expanded unemployment benefits for jobless Americans by increasing weekly payments, boosting the duration of pay and extending benefits to previously ineligible groups like the self-employed, independent contractors and so-called gig workers.

Benefits are taxable but aren't subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes (7.65% total) and, in many states, aren't subject to state and local tax.

States, which administer unemployment and play a vital role in the disbursement of funds, are experiencing an unprecedented volume of claims and are struggling to keep up with the demand. Roughly 22 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the four weeks through April 11, according to seasonally adjusted figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.

"It's what economists call a 'peak load problem,'" said Stephen Wandner, a labor economist and senior fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance. "The system is overwhelmed."

These challenges have pushed some state officials, like those in Florida, to suggest downloading and mailing in paper applications. That could result in even longer delays and lost applications, Wandner said.

Some states have tried to increase their capacity to better manage the surge, which has alleviated some of the initial backlog. And Congress passed legislation allocating $1 billion to help states process the claims. 

But evidence suggests that state offices are still struggling to deal with the avalanche of claims. 

Some people have already waited more than a month.
Anthony Stettner
senior fellow at The Century Foundation

"It's taking longer than it would typically take to get your unemployment insurance claim processed," said Anthony Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. "Some people have already waited more than a month for their claim."

In Florida, for example, the unemployment website crashes continually and phone lines are jammed for hours on end, according to users.

Ohio says it won't even be able to begin processing unemployment claims from the expanded pool of eligible workers until mid-May

It's taken some people weeks to even get in their application, said Raul Martinez Jr., deputy chief of staff for Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla. Some have been able to apply but haven't received an answer in over a month, he said.

Speier doesn't expect an unemployment check to ever come, and doesn't know where to turn.

Speier's business, Precision Performance, which she's owned for more than two decades, has suffered tremendously as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In the age of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, clients have stopped booking appointments.

One program that could have offered stopgap funding via forgivable loans — the Paycheck Protection Program — exhausted its funding amid high demand from small businesses.

Speier also applied for financial relief through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides low-interest loans for small businesses and includes up to $10,000 in emergency grants. But, like many other business owners, she hasn't received funds or a response from the SBA. 

"Can't work because of this pandemic. No help from anyone," Speier said in a text message. "No health insurance anymore. And should be homeless soon." 

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More than 33,000 Floridians who applied for unemployment benefits after March 15 have begun receiving their payments, according to figures released by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on April 16. That's just about 5% of the roughly 648,000 people who applied between March 21 and April 11, according to the department.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order April 16 eliminating the biweekly requirement that applicants sign into the state's unemployment portal and certify that they're actively seeking work, which he said should relieve some stress on the system.

"Ultimately, we need to get people paid," DeSantis said at a press conference that day.

Still, the delays are leaving people like Dawn Hormanski in precarious situations. 

Hormanski was laid off from her job as a cashier at a bakery in Amherst, Ohio, in March. Ever since, she's been worried about how to come up with the money she needs for her medications. The 75-year-old has asthma and high blood pressure, among other ailments. 

Dawn Hormanski
Source:  Dawn Smith

"I'm 75," Hormanski said. "I wouldn't go to work if I didn't need to.

"If I stop those drugs, my blood pressure would be high, which puts a strain on the heart." 

At the end of March, Hormanski tried to file for unemployment in Ohio. "It was absolutely horrible," she said, of the process. She called the state office five times, and each time was cut off before she could speak to someone.

"It would start telling you what to do and then you'd just get a dead line," Hormanski said. She had more luck online, but three weeks have passed and she's still not confident anyone has even looked at her application. 

Bret Crow, communications director at the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, said that "the problem, in a nutshell, is sheer volume."

In four weeks, the state has received more claims than it has over the last two years. Crow said the department has been working "around the clock" to streamline its performance, and their online systems now have 20 times the previous capacity. "Each claim is important to us," he said.

Hormanski said she understands there are a lot of people filing claims and that no one was prepared for this situation. "But it's a little difficult when you hear people saying, 'It's coming. It's coming.' Well, so is summer," she added. "You have to let these people know they're not forgotten." 

One point of reassurance for people stuck waiting: In many states, when the benefits arrive they'll be retroactive to the date someone applied, Stettner said. 

"At least they can count on a large check, maybe $9,000, if there's a 10-week delay," he said.

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