Uncertain Unemployment: New Claims Face Uncertainty, Inconsistency, and No Answers

Those filing new unemployment claims with the state Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) are facing great inconsistencies with their regular payment and the extra $600 promised from the federal government as part of the CARES Act – and getting through to the state for answers to those questions is increasingly a fool’s errand.

This at the same time that the state is running through the Unemployment Trust Fund that pays out the claims at a faster rate than any state in the nation, according to the U.S. Treasury Department figures.

Most new claims began during the last week of March, and those new claims started getting their payments on April 7 for their first week of unemployment (for week ending April 4). Unilaterally, readers of the paper reported they got the $600 federal bonus in total on April 9 or 10 – two days later. Last week, however, things seemed to change without explanation. Some still got their regular unemployment payment on April 14, but never got the $600 bonus. Those who did get it reported that taxes were taken out of it, making it $510, and the understanding was it was tax-free money.

It has left a tremendous amount of questions – and some still haven’t even gotten their first $600 payment, with notes on their accounts saying they will get it on April 24.

The situation, most say, lacks any consistency or explanation. Those who have tried to call the DUA have gotten nowhere. Those who filled out online request for information/call forms also got no response.

What those frustrated folks did was flock to the Independent News Group’s websites – particularly the Chelsea Record and Everett Independent where more than 350 original comments were registered under a story posted on April 9 about the initial procedures for signing up for unemployment – a story that was mostly made up of clear information relayed to the paper from state government. (A typical story on the paper’s website would normally get two or three comments a week).

Most of the comments were related to the extra $600 and why it was taxed one week and not the other, why it didn’t arrive in one payment and why it came on random days. Many, many readers were upset about the inability to contact anyone.

“Thank you Chelsea Record and Everett Independent!” wrote reader Robin Vachon. “This is the only article I could find with issues related to receiving both Massachusetts state Unemployment Insurance (UI) and the additional $600 FPUC. Like many here, I received no notification either by mail or on my UI account before $600 was deposited to my regular UI prepaid debit account furnished by the state on Thursday, April 9. However I did not receive my next weekly $600 boost which I assumed would hit my account by Thursday, April 16 or the 17 at the latest. As far as I could tell there is no updated information on any glitches with payments on the DUA website, or anywhere else in the media. This is not only frustrating, but added stress at a time when we don’t need it. The least Massachusetts officials could do is acknowledge the problem for people like us who might have families that rely on our financial support. Thank you again to any reporters who are working on finding some answers.”

The newspaper did try to get questions answered about the unemployment issues, particularly because there were so many readers that responded to the stories. Reaching out to the Governor’s Office, a spokesperson put the paper in touch with a spokesman for the Department of Labor, Charles Pearce.

He first referred that reporter to a general website, which offered no new information.

Then he denied the paper an opportunity for an interview, saying they would try to answer written questions on the matter. The e-mail exchange went like this.

“Information related to the CARES act and other COVID-19 related unemployment issues can be found at  HYPERLINK “http://mass.gov/unemployment/covid-19” \t “_blank” mass.gov/unemployment/covid-19,” Pearce wrote.

“I understand that,” the paper wrote back. “I’ve looked there. I was hoping to do an interview with someone whom I could ask questions of and write a story on. People would really appreciate that and it would go a long way in all of our papers for giving clarity. Let me know.”

“If you could send along your questions I will work to get you responses as soon as possible,” Pearce replied.

“Is there no one there that can speak to a reporter?” asked the paper.

“Not at this time,” wrote Pearce.

The paper did submit a list of about 10 questions that were most frequently asked on its websites, but by press time, neither Pearce nor the Governor’s Office had responded to any of the questions.

Pearce, however, did have time to grant an interview to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, and it appeared the answers were clearer as to the confusion. The issue seems to be because Massachusetts is running through its Unemployment Trust Fund at a faster rate than any state in the nation – likely needing to ask the federal government soon for a loan to cover future claims.

States typically pay regular benefits out of a trust fund that is supposed to be supplied to handle a one-year recession. However, more than 100,000 people apparently applied for unemployment two weeks ago, and since February, the state has used up nearly 55 percent of its trust fund for regular UI payments (not the extra $600 though that is paid by the federal government). That was a much faster rate than any other state in the nation, with New York the closest in going through about 45 percent of its trust fund, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The only remedy for the state, according to the Wall Street Journal article, if it runs out of money in the trust fund is to seek a no-interest loan from the federal government to pay out claims.

Pearce told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday the state “will continue to take any steps necessary to ensure the solvency of the trust fund, including seeking support from the federal government.”

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