Personal Finance

She thought unemployment benefits were coming. Two months later, eviction loomed

Key Points
  • Jennifer Moon, 46, has waited more than two months for unemployment benefits in Georgia.
  • Without income, Moon missed two months of rent. Her landlord threatened eviction at month's end.
  • Thousands of Americans have waited months for unemployment benefits, at a time when renter and homeowner protections have lapsed. 

Jennifer Moon has waited more than two months for unemployment benefits — and the delay presented a scary situation.

Absent any income, the 46-year-old, who lives in Cedartown, Georgia, fell behind on bills.

Lenders repossessed her car. She lost water at her home, which she rents, before a friend helped pay the bill.

Most significantly, Moon, a certified nursing assistant, also couldn't pay her rent. She missed two months of payments — $900 total — and next month's rent is due soon.

The landlord threatened eviction if Moon can't pay up by month's end.

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"I begged and pleaded with them," she said. "[They said] I have exactly 10 days to be vacated."

Making up the shortfall by returning to work is also a risky proposition. Moon has a lung disease, pulmonary emphysema, which requires her to use oxygen and puts her in a high-risk category for Covid-19.

Moon, a single woman, doesn't have family to fall back on for help, and cares for a 30-year-old son with a disability.

"I have not even 5 cents to my name," Moon said last week. "I'm so frustrated.

Jennifer Moon, 46, from Cedartown, Georgia, waited more than two months for unemployment benefits, causing her to fall behind on rent. Her landlord threatened to evict her at month's end.
Jennifer Moon

"I'm tired of crying, worrying and begging folks."

Luckily, it seems Moon can stave off disaster at the 11th hour — at least for now.

Georgia's Labor Department is releasing Moon's unemployment funds — $4,095 in back pay. She should get the money on Tuesday or Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman for the Georgia Labor Department, which looked into the status of Moon's application after a CNBC inquiry this week.

'Badly behind'

Moon's story exists at the nexus of two competing forces: overwhelmed state unemployment agencies and lapsed protections for homeowners and renters, both playing out during the worst economic shock since the Great Depression.

Unemployment in April surged to its highest level since the 1930s, as states ordered businesses to close to limit further spread of Covid-19.

Around 28 million Americans were still collecting unemployment benefits in early August, more than four months into the crisis. More than 1 million people continue to file new applications for aid each week, a mark that hadn't ever been crossed prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

State unemployment systems, bogged down by antiquated technology and limited staffing, buckled under the volume.

Thousands of unemployed workers have been left waiting months for benefits as a result. In normal times, unemployed workers generally get aid within three weeks.

Around 10% of the 2.5 million people who received their first payment of unemployment benefits in June — or, around 250,000 people — had waited at least 70 days for the money to arrive, according to Labor Department data.

Nearly no one waited that long prior to the Covid-19 recession, data show.

"The states are badly behind," according to Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow and unemployment expert at the Century Foundation. "In [Moon's] case, waiting almost nine weeks is more common.

"It's really bad because people need the money."

Meanwhile, a Census Bureau survey conducted in July found that more than 13 million people didn't pay their prior month's rent. More than 10 million people weren't confident they could pay rent in August, the survey found.

Millions of renters at risk as four-month moratorium expires
Millions of renters at risk as four-month moratorium expires

Federal eviction protections for renters and homeowners unable to pay their housing bills ended last month. Similar protections have expired in around 30 states.

That puts up to 40 million people at risk of losing their homes in coming months, by some estimates — four times the amount of the Great Recession.

An executive measure around evictions that President Trump signed earlier this month doesn't re-up prior eviction protections in place, but instead directs federal agencies to consider measures to prevent evictions, experts said.

"The executive action was a true nothing-burger," Stettner said.

Georgia is one of seven states that never issued any kind of statewide ban on evictions during the pandemic, according to Emily Benfer, an eviction expert and law professor who's been documenting the policies across the U.S. (The others are Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming.)

Confusion ensues

In Jennifer Moon's case, confusion ensued after she received a letter from Georgia's Labor Department in June.

The notice listed a benefit of $55 a week. With an extra $600 weekly subsidy provided by a federal financial relief law, she expected to soon get $655 a week in benefits, before taxes.

As it turns out, those sorts of "monetary determination" letters aren't a guarantee of benefits — they merely notify workers of what they would receive weekly if found eligible for benefits. 

A quirk of the unemployment system held up those benefits, as with thousands of others around the country caught in unemployment limbo.

Why some states may have unfair unemployment systems
Why some states may have unfair unemployment systems

The problem boiled down to a discrepancy in paperwork provided by Moon and her prior employer, PrimeCare Nursing Services.

When that occurs, human intervention is often involved, slowing up the process further, Stettner said.

But phone calls and messages went unreturned for weeks when Moon inquired about her application status and her financial situation grew increasingly dire.

A Georgia Labor Department representative called Moon this week after a CNBC inquiry, and started a multi-day investigative process that required input from both Moon and her prior employer.

We must abide by federal and state regulations regarding employee and employer rights and due process.
Kersha Cartwright
spokesperson for the Georgia Labor Department

Ultimately, the employment-separation reason Moon listed was different from than the one her employer listed, triggering an eligibility review, according to a spokeswoman for the state labor department. 

In the end, Moon was found eligible for benefits.

"The GDOL is committed to supporting all eligible Georgians with benefits to bridge the gap between employment," according to spokesperson Kersha Cartwright. "However, we must abide by federal and state regulations regarding employee and employer rights and due process." 

$300 unemployment boost

Moon could unfortunately soon be back in the same position.

President Trump signed an executive measure offering an extra $300 a week in benefits to unemployed workers. A prior $600 weekly federal subsidy expired at the end of July.

But workers like Moon won't be eligible for the financial assistance offered through this "lost wages" grant program.

The aid isn't available to people currently getting less than $100 a week in unemployment benefits from the state, as in Moon's case.

Absent any additional federal assistance, she'll get $55 a week — about $220 a month — in benefits, before tax.

Her oxygen tank to treat pulmonary emphysema alone costs $58 a month — that's in addition to her $450 monthly rent and other bills.

For the time being, Moon is just happy benefits will soon be in her bank account.

"It almost got me to where I wanted to give up," she said. "But I'm a Southern gal.

"I don't want to give up."