Personal Finance

He lived in his car for months after unemployment benefits stalled. Then came a cancer diagnosis

Key Points
  • Carlos McArthur was laid off in March. He waited more than two months for his first unemployment check and was forced to live in his car.
  • States have been inundated with claims. Nearly 33 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits, about five times the peak of the Great Recession.
  • States may be delaying payments due partly to fraud concerns, but some experts feel such precautions are placing undue hardship on people who need the aid.
Carlos McArthur, a resident of Syracuse, New York, lost his job with a medical transportation company in March. He lived in his car for more than two months while waiting for his unemployment benefits to arrive.

Carlos McArthur is one of millions of Americans who lost a job during the coronavirus pandemic.  

But his plight is particularly acute — and provides a glimpse at how the nation's unemployment system may fail people when they need it most.

McArthur, 51, worked for a medical transportation company, driving patients to and from appointments, before being laid off in early March.

The Syracuse, New York, resident quickly applied for unemployment benefits to supplement the $13.50 in hourly wages he'd lost, slightly above the state minimum wage.  

His first check didn't arrive for more than two months. He soon became homeless.

McArthur, who had separated from his wife before losing his job, had lined up a new apartment. However, without any income — from work or jobless aid — he couldn't afford the $750 monthly rent. Instead of moving in, he was forced to live in his car.

Basic living — eating, sleeping, hygiene — took a major hit, he said.

Amid all this, McArthur thought he'd contracted Covid-19 after developing symptoms like shortness of breath. Blood work confirmed he didn't have the coronavirus. Instead, he came away with a different diagnosis: leukemia.

"It takes a lot to be unemployed and have no money," McArthur said. "Some people would crack and give up. I suffered for many months before I got my unemployment." 

'Totally overwhelmed'

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed some big holes in the country's social safety net — the unemployment insurance system included.

In this case, states were ill-prepared to handle a surge in applications, leading to delays in much-needed benefits. Some have waited months.

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To an extent, delays were to be expected around the country given the speed and severity of the current crisis. Levels of joblessness unseen since the Great Depression hit in a matter of weeks amid state-mandated economic shutdowns.

New York, for example, processed about 4.1 million unemployment claims in just over three months — about five times the number in all of 2019, according to Deanna Cohen, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Labor.

States also had to implement new procedures codified in the CARES Act, a federal relief law enacted in March. It extended jobless aid to a large group of workers, like the self-employed, freelancers and gig workers, previously ineligible for benefits, for example.

But delays are also a function of antiquated systems, outdated policy and a lack of investment during the good times, experts said.

State unemployment offices were staffed for jobless levels in February that were at their lowest point in half a century — and therefore unable to manage the peak 14.7% rate that hit in April.

Nearly 33 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits, according to the Labor Department. That's about five times the peak during the Great Recession.

"The systems have been totally overwhelmed," said Jesse Rothstein, a former chief economist at the Labor Department during the Obama administration. "They sort of had to rebuild the airplane as they flew in the middle of this."

'Economic turmoil and desperate people'

The hold-up in receiving benefits came in two tranches for Carlos McArthur.

In the first instance, he applied for unemployment on March 9 and didn't receive his first check until May 20.

The check, for $871, was for just one week of benefits. (It included the state's typical portion based on McArthur's prior earnings history, plus a $600-a-week supplement being funded by the federal government through July.)

However, McArthur had to wait another three weeks for his next check. That one was for $5,500, containing back pay for sums owed going back to March.

We too much design our system over the concern people might get benefits they're not entitled to.
Jesse Rothstein
professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley

All the while, McArthur had been living in his car. He'd tried going to a rescue mission for help, but feared for his health because people there weren't wearing masks, he said.

"It took a major toll on his life," according to Julia Rosner, his attorney.

Fortunately, the apartment McArthur had planned to rent before being derailed was still available. The back pay was enough for him to afford rent and a security deposit, and he received a lease June 9.

He's been getting checks every week since.

The New York Labor Department didn't offer a reason for the payment delays, said Rosner, who is a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC, which provides free civil legal services to low-income clients.

How unemployment benefits are taxed
How unemployment benefits are taxed

And the state still owes McArthur at least one check, she said.

"It's troubling there's no recognition or attempt to expedite the process, despite having 32,000 dead citizens, economic turmoil and desperate people," Rosner said. "It's extraordinary New York state hasn't risen to the occasion. They're still relying on pre-Covid policies."

12 years of benefits in four months

New York has handled the surge in unemployment claims better than any other major state, said Cohen, the New York labor department spokeswoman.

Since the Covid-19 crisis began in early March, the state has paid more than $25 billion in benefits to more than 2.9 million New Yorkers — roughly 12 years' worth of benefits in a span of four months, she said.

That's a much better record than states like Florida, which has nearly the same population as New York but has paid out just $9.5 billion, or less than half New York's total, she said.

New York has also improved  its systems during the pandemic. New phones, for instance, now help an average 30,000 callers per day, compared with 8,500 prior to the upgrade, Cohen said.

It also launched an online application using Google Cloud to increase reliability and handle a higher volume, she said.

There's typically a lag of about two to three weeks, even in normal times, between a state's receipt of an unemployment application and payment of benefits.

And there are several reasons things could be held up longer, Cohen said.

For example, the state may need additional documentation, like employment authorization or wage documents. Some applications may be missing data or have incorrect information needed before a claim can be processed. Investigators may need to dig deeper in the case of disputes, such as an employer contesting the worker's unemployment claim.

Back pay could be delayed if a filer doesn't periodically check in online or over the phone to certify they're still unemployed. (Some states suspended this policy during the pandemic.)

New York's labor department couldn't share the details of McArthur's unemployment claim due to privacy laws, and thus couldn't verify if one of these reasons was a factor in the delayed payments.

Such safeguards are necessary to prevent unemployment fraud, which has increased across the country during the pandemic, Cohen said.

A Nigerian fraud ring is suspected to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington state as part of an unemployment scheme involving fake claims, for example. The state has recovered some of that money.

Outdated design?

It's unacceptable that these safeguards would have held up her client's benefits for more than two months, Rosner said.

States should be releasing benefits despite having questions about an application, in order to expedite help to those in need during the pandemic, she said.

"We too much design our system over the concern people might get benefits they're not entitled to," said Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

It's clear that during the last two recessions — the current one and the Great Recession — benefits should have gotten to people more quickly, he said.

States seem to be operating more smoothly than at the beginning of the crisis, said Susan Houseman, research director at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

"The initial crush has occurred and I think states have by and large worked through the backlog," she said.

In some cases, though, states are still sorting applications that are more than a month old.

In Michigan, for example, about 30,000 people who filed for benefits before June 1 — about 1% of total applicants — still haven't been paid. The state is hoping to process those applications by July 20.

"While there is only small percentage of eligible workers who have yet to be paid, we know that is no consolation to the thousands of claimants who are frustrated, desperate and owed the benefits they were promised," said Steve Gray, director of the state Unemployment Insurance Agency.