Derek Wood was about to achieve a lifelong dream. Unemployment benefits may prove to be his foil.
Wood, 47, a guitar player and songwriter from the Little Rock, Ark., area, who sings with a soulful country-blues croon, quit his job in December to pursue music full-time.
The time seemed right. His band, The Going Jessies, was playing more at popular local joints and doing more multi-day road tours. The three-piece group — which includes Wood's partner, Angela Paradis — released its first full album in 2019.
That dream is slipping away.
In fact, chasing it triggered a long battle to collect jobless benefits, records show. Wood isn't any closer to securing the funds — despite what appears to be a strong case in his favor, unemployment experts said, and after a rabbit hole of appeals.
Meanwhile, Paradis, who plays bass and sings backup vocals, is also unemployed. Years of savings is gone, diverted to everyday living costs.
If unemployment funds don't arrive to replenish savings, a music career will likely no longer be feasible.
"It's cost me a year," Wood said of the ordeal. "And we're not 25 [anymore]."
To be sure, the couple's story isn't on par with tragedies that have played out en masse since the pandemic upended the economy — a reality the duo are quick to point out.
But their story offers another perspective on the human toll of the unemployment crisis and the intangible cost of gaps in the country's social safety net.
Lengthy waits to receive jobless benefits have become commonplace since the spring.
The labyrinthine structure of America's unemployment system is partly to blame. It's a morass of administrative hurdles that can slow aid to needy people at many different junctures — which, for some like Wood, has amounted to a nightmare.
Roughly 137,000 workers — around 1 in 5 applicants — who received their first payment of benefits in November had waited 70 days for the money, according to Labor Department data. Before the pandemic, less than 1% waited that long.
Workers can appeal a state's decision, as may occur if they're denied aid. (Bosses may also appeal if they feel a worker isn't entitled to benefits.)
Typically, these systems run relatively smoothly. But overwhelming volume has stressed them to near breaking point, according to unemployment experts.
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Many families are forced to subsist on zero income as their benefits sit in limbo.
"If this goes on and on, justice prolonged is not particularly justice," said Stephen Wandner, senior fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance and a former Labor Department actuary.
By November, a quarter of applicants — almost 24,000 people — had waited four months for an appeals decisions from a lower court, according to the Labor Department. Nearly zero waited that long pre-pandemic.
(Some states have a track record that's much worse. In Georgia, for example, almost all appellants — 99% — waited more than four months for a decision.)
Workers may appeal these lower-court decisions, triggering further delays. Only a few thousand people do so in any given month, according to federal data. But around 1 in 5 waited two months for a decision from a higher authority.
"What's happening throughout the country is, if you apply and it's simple, you'll quickly get your benefits," Wandner said. "If an issue comes up, it can take forever."
Wood is among the thousands who've gotten caught in the appeals web. To date, he's filed three, according to records reviewed by CNBC. More may be necessary.
Wood had worked for a family business, which specialized in heavy-equipment construction, for three decades until quitting in December 2019.
He shifted to freelancing gigs as a sound engineer at a local recording studio while working to further expand the growing slate of paid gigs with The Going Jessies.
Members like to say that the band — which gets its name from an old Southern expression Wood's grandma was fond of — has a Tom Petty-like sound, if the rocker had been from Texas instead of Florida.
"For several years, I had tried talking him into giving live music a shot," Paradis said of her partner. "That's what he always wanted to do."
But live music shut down in March and recording work dried up.
Quitting his job disqualified Wood from collecting traditional unemployment insurance, a fact he knew. Wood instead applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a temporary federal program set up for jobless self-employed, gig and freelance workers, in May, when Arkansas began accepting applications.
In June, he was denied PUA benefits. The Arkansas Department of Commerce deemed Wood ineligible, despite his being self-employed.
Wood then had 20 days to lodge an appeal. But he first needed a specific letter in-hand from the state, an Arkansas labor representative told him. By the time he received that notice, the 20-day time window had already closed, records show.
Wood then asked for a "timeliness" hearing, to judge whether he had or hadn't filed his first appeal on time. He was granted a hearing in November, but lost the case.
Wood appealed that decision. On Dec. 28, an Arkansas review board overturned the order. The initial appeal arrived outside the law's 20-day threshold due to "circumstances beyond his control," the board said.
Now, about 10 months after his last payday, Wood is left where he began: waiting to hear on the status of the original appeal.
It's unclear when the state will render a decision, or if a hearing will be necessary.
Meanwhile, Paradis lost her part-time accounting job in June and can't find another. Wood's prior full-time job is no longer available. The couple has subsisted on her $132 a week in jobless benefits, savings and by selling items like guitars and amplifiers for cash.
Luckily, their cost of living is low. They don't have kids and have few monthly bills.
"[Still,] we had to use all the money we have saved anywhere to get through the year," Wood said.
All the while, he likely should have been able to collect PUA benefits, according to Wandner, after a verbal description of the situation, given that Wood was self-employed and ineligible for traditional state benefits.
"States are doing strange things," Wandner said of agencies' behavior during the pandemic. "They make fast decisions and may or may not be right."
The Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, part of the Commerce Department, declined comment on Wood's case. Confidentiality laws prohibit disclosure of information about specific claimants, according to spokeswoman Zoe Calkins.
Wood and Paradis had hoped to eke out a modest living on music, with enough to pay bills and save a little money for the future.
"If we don't get our savings back, we may have lost our chance," Paradis said. "We may not be able to afford taking the risk."
"As it drags out, you start to wonder, where's the end?" she added.