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Economy & Business

Underfunded Unemployment Offices Leave Many Workers Still Waiting For Checks

NOEL KING, HOST:

Many state unemployment offices run on tiny budgets. They have out-of-date computers and sometimes just a few dozen employees. And suddenly, these little offices are a lifeline for 36 million Americans who are out of work. Stacey Vanek Smith from our daily economics podcast The Indicator brought us this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Kayla Nelson and her husband were laid off from the Subaru factory in Lafayette, Ind., back in March. They applied for unemployment right away, and then they waited.

KAYLA NELSON: A week went by. I'm like, OK, I have some savings saved up. Two weeks went by. I'm like, OK, it's starting to get a little bit ridiculous now. And now it's like, OK, it's May now. We are going to have to pay rent next month.

VANEK SMITH: It's been more than six weeks since they applied. And Kayla and her husband still have not gotten their unemployment checks. Meanwhile, Kayla's husband got sick with COVID-19. Some of her kids have been showing symptoms, so she is trying to quarantine people, care for people, cook, clean, keep the kids doing their schoolwork, keep everybody inside, and on top of that, she's spending hours on the phone every day with Indiana's unemployment office.

NELSON: Just calling the 1-800 number will drive you crazy. And you're just waiting and waiting and waiting.

VANEK SMITH: Kayla tried email, thought maybe that would be faster.

NELSON: Emailed 90 different claim agents, and I only got a response back from one out of all of the 90 people. I'm like, what is going on?

JOSH RICHARDSON: My name is Josh Richardson. I'm the chief of staff at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. We operate the state's unemployment insurance program.

VANEK SMITH: Josh has been working there for more than a decade. He was there during the Great Recession when things got so bad they had nearly 30,000 people applying for unemployment in one week. So when Indiana announced a statewide shutdown, there was this one thought that went through his head.

RICHARDSON: How do we possibly staff up to process benefits that people need in the timeframe in which they're going to expect them and need them?

VANEK SMITH: Just a few months ago, Indiana was seeing record low unemployment. The staff was lean, but it was more than adequate to handle the 2,000-odd people filing for unemployment every week. And then the claims started coming in - 3,000 people, 5,000 people, 10,000 people. Josh couldn't believe what he was seeing, and the numbers kept climbing.

RICHARDSON: Yeah. I was like, 120, 130, 140.

VANEK SMITH: One hundred forty thousand people filing for unemployment in one week. That's almost five times what Josh had seen during the Great Recession.

RICHARDSON: This was just really different than what we were expecting and what we were built for.

VANEK SMITH: In the last eight weeks, Josh has brought on hundreds of people. He now has roughly 650 people working with him. But they're trying to assist 640,000 Indianans who've lost their jobs, people like Kayla.

NELSON: To go from being our own backbone and our own source of income to just waiting and you don't know when it's coming, I was very, like - I was at my lowest yesterday. I was over it. Like, I quit (laughter). I was.

VANEK SMITH: Josh Richardson says he and his team are working as fast as they can. But he says he knows that for a lot of people, people like Kayla, it's just not fast enough.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CLOUDS (INSIGHT VOL. 3)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.