Gephardt: Utahns Face Long Wait Times, Frustration With Unemployment Office
RIVERTON, Utah – Over 145,000 Utahns have filed for first-time jobless benefits since the COVID-19 began wreaking havoc on the economy on March 15.
The pace of new claims has eased in recent weeks, but it was so high that KSL has heard from many Utahns struggling to get help from Utah’s unemployment office because they couldn’t reach a real, live human being.
Morgan Higbee was one of those Utahns who kept calling the Department of Workforce Service’s Unemployment Insurance division. She said time is running out.
“I’ve used up all my 401K. I’ve used up all my savings,” she said. “So it’s kind of very important that we get that money.”
Higbee lost her job in the mortgage industry just before COVID-19 hit Utah. Now she searches for a new one every day.
“I stay up all night, even,” she said about looking for work. “I’m becoming an insomniac.”
Under the CARES Act, she is eligible for a 13-week extension of benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Insurance program. But her application was denied, so she has been trying to get ahold of someone in the Unemployment Division of the Department of Workforce Services.
“It’s disheartening. I mean you try calling and the recording says that they can’t talk to you and to call back later,” Higbee described. “And, I’ve even tried calling right at eight o’clock in the morning, hoping that they’ll answer.”
Several viewers shared a similar experience with KSL.
Kevin Burt leads the DWS’ Unemployment Insurance Division. He said his group has had more work in the pandemic’s first month than it saw throughout the past two years combined. He has had to bring people in to help with that surge.
“We’ve added almost over 100 people in UI (Unemployment Insurance), with other divisions,” Burt said. “There is a disruption certainly to our calls – our call wait times and chat wait times.”
While some of the added workforce into the Unemployment Insurance division was answering calls and chats, most were focused on processing.
“The primary question people are asking is, ‘Hey, when you’re going to process my benefit?’” Burt explained. “What we want to do is to continue to focus on that.”
He said that because of that focus, his division can process 85% of first-time applications for jobless benefits within 21 days.
“Maybe it takes us a few weeks to process it but once they’re approved, those payments will go retroactive and pay back to the date that they were eligible,” said Burt. “Once we’re able to process it, they’ll get that back pay and that will help them with their loss of employment due to the pandemic.”
But until more Utahns return to work causing demand to drop significantly, the automated messages and long wait times will continue. Burt recommended Utahns check the DWS website for any updates as well as the Unemployment Insurance divisions FAQ before trying to call or chat.
“They can find a lot of the answers to the questions they have themselves about accessing those benefits.”
Meanwhile, Higbee is still waiting on her 13-week extension. She said she was finally able to get through with the chat tool but was told she was ineligible because the state program that administers that extension is not up and running yet.
Burt confirmed that is the case.
“The 13-week extension is for those that have exhausted their benefit and it allows the feds to come in and pay for an additional 13 weeks for those that remain unemployed,” he explained.
Because of overwhelming demand, Burt said his office chose to strategically evaluate a sequence to focus on. First came the first-time applicants, and then the additional $600 from the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
“But our priority now is the 13-week extension. We believe by the end of the month, we’ll have the 13-week extension for those that have exhausted their benefit,” said Burt. “They would also get those retro payments for the weeks that they were unemployed with exhausted benefits.”
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How Do I Prevent It?
The CDC has some simple recommendations, most of which are the same for preventing other respiratory illnesses or the flu:
- Avoid close contact with people who may be sick
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- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
How To Get Help
If you’re worried you may have COVID-19, you can contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 to speak to trained healthcare professionals. You can also use telehealth services through your healthcare providers.
If you see evidence of PRICE GOUGING, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wants you to report it. Common items in question include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, certain household cleaners, and even cold medicine and baby formula. Authorities are asking anyone who sees price gouging to report it to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 800-721-7233. The division can also be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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