Saturday, January 28, 2023

A guide to unemployment filing as hundreds of thousands wait for benefits [Free read]

The NC Department of Commerce website tells those filing unemployment benefits it will take 14 days to receive payment, but it is still “awaiting guidance for issuing those payments” from the federal government. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Around 371,000 North Carolinians have filed for unemployment benefits while the N.C. Department of Commerce continues to wait for guidance on how to roll out payments to those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, including independent workers, according to N.C. Senator Harper Peterson of the 9th district.

Once it receives those guidelines, the department said it will take about 14 days to receive the first of $600 weekly federal payments that will continue for 17 weeks, from April 4 to July 31, issued through state governments.

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Peterson said the federal government will take over in early August and will match state benefits for another 13 weeks.

The department is overwhelmed with phone calls and emails as those unemployed by the pandemic wait to hear when they will begin receiving their first payments, according to Peterson. The department issued a report on Monday outlining various programs, but Peterson said many who have called his office ask questions “that still remain unanswered” by the department as it waits for guidance on implementation.

One Wilmington artist told Port City Daily that the department is not answering phones or emails regarding unemployment questions. One particular question — Must you fill out weekly certificate forms stating that you are looking for employment? — has not been answered. The form itself does not address Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 118, which loosened various unemployment restrictions — including work search requirements — for those unemployed, furloughed, or with reduced hours because of the pandemic.

According to Peterson, those who have registered for unemployment must simply fill out the weekly certificates online and check ‘yes’ to indicate that you have looked for jobs.

On Monday, the department’s Division of Employment Security (DES) division issued a report outlining the federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), the $2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by U.S. Congress that includes $260 billion for expanded unemployment benefits.

The bill adds $600 per week from the federal government on top of the base amount provided by the state, which according to Peterson now averages $260 a week and has a ceiling of $350 a week.

Late Friday afternoon, Peterson joined a conference call with Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce Lockhart Taylor, who heads the DES, to receive further updates.

“He was frustrated by the fact that guidance hasn’t come down yet. And no explanation why,” Peterson said.

Below is a guide to those going through the unemployment application process, outlined by both the department’s report and by Peterson.

Three temporary unemployment compensation programs

Monday’s report from the DES outlined three temporary assistance programs established by the CARES Act, but noted it is “still awaiting guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to implement these programs.”

Anyone who filed a claim due to COVID-19 before the passing of the CARES Act may still be eligible for these benefits, according to the report, and if any benefits are owed for a week previously claimed, payment will be made retroactively.

“We will share more details about eligibility and how to apply for benefits as they become available,” the department stated.

The three programs are as follows:

  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC): Provides an additional $600 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits paid for the weeks after March 29. The program is slated to end July 31.
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC): Provides up to 13 additional weeks of unemployment insurance benefits.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA): Provides unemployment compensation for individuals not eligible for regular unemployment insurance or any extensions to unemployment insurance, including self-employed workers and independent contractors who are not typically eligible for unemployment insurance.

Independent workers: Set up a profile now

The department clarified that independent contractors or self-employed workers — those typically not eligible for employment benefits — are qualified through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program if they were out of work because of Covid-19.

But, as it notes throughout the report and on its website, the DES is still “awaiting guidance from the federal government” to implement the PUA program.

Peterson said that such workers, while waiting for instructions on how to apply, should go ahead and set up an account with the DES.

“The best thing to do right now — this is good advice — to get into the [unemployment] system, is to go online, where it gives you the opportunity to set up an individual account. You don’t have to file an application but at least set up your individual account. So that when the PUA [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] is established — that’s $600 a week — you can apply for that. Get into the system, so you’ll be one step closer to engaging that [assistance].”

Putting up with an overwhelmed call center

The department said for those filing a new claim to do so online (des.nc.gov), or if you don’t have access to a computer, call the Customer Call Center at 888-737-0259.

“However, due to the high volume of calls related to COVID-19, you may experience a long wait time. DES will ensure that claimants do not miss out on any weeks of eligibility due to the high call volume. We will begin the claim with the week when they initially attempted to file.”

Peterson said the call center currently has 50 staff on hand, but they’ve “never been inundated like this or anticipated it.”

“They realize — they know that it’s a disaster,” Peterson said.

The department’s website noted that if you are experiencing issues with the password or PIN for your online account, email NCDESpasswordhelp@nccommerce.com

He said the department plans to hire a private call center to increase personnel to 350 people.

“And last, they’re trying to move to a cloud-based platform where they won’t have this system crashing,” Peterson said.

The call center is also facing logistical challenges due to physical distancing requirements and people working from home.

He said new call center platforms are supposed to be addressed on Monday.

Am I eligible?

After again noting that the it is awaiting guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to implement the temporary assistance programs, and that payments “should start being paid in about two weeks,” the DES clarified who is eligible.

“Anyone who filed a claim due to COVID-19 before this legislation may still be eligible for these benefits. If any benefits are owed for a week previously claimed, payment will be made retroactively.”

Do I need to complete weekly certification every week to receive benefits

The DES confirmed that the Weekly Certification — a series of yes/no questions that helps determine your eligibility — must be completed every week, or you will not be considered for payment that week.

You must sign into your online account to complete the weekly certification, or if you do not have internet access, call 888-372-3453.

It then noted that the Executive Order 118 allows some requirements to be waived for people filing for unemployment due to the pandemic.

“If you are filing due to COVID-19, you may answer ‘yes’ tot his question on the Weekly Certification: Did you look for work?” according to the report.

What you need to file your claim

To file claim, you will need your social security number, information about your most recent employment and pay, work history for the last two years, and bank routing and account numbers for direct deposits.

If you are filing due to Covid-19, the department said to select ‘coronavirus’ as your reason for separation.

Timeline

Once you file a complaint, your last employer must respond to the DES within 10 days.

“No payment will be released until after this 10-day period,” according to the report. “If there are no issues, individuals typically receive payment within about 14 days of filing their initial claim.”


Want to share your own experience with the unemployment application process? Email info@portcitydaily.com

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