6.64 million: Unemployment claims surge as states await federal guidance

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WASHINGTON — More than 6.64 million workers filed initial claims for unemployment insurance in the week ending March 28, exceeding the 3.3 million who filed claims a week earlier, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The record-setting filings in the most recent two weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic forces the shutdown of many businesses may nevertheless not be an accurate reflection of the depth of the employment problem as states provide different guidance on the benefits available.

“Similar to last week’s unemployment claims numbers, today’s report reflects the sacrifices American workers are making for their families, neighbors, and country in order to ‘slow the spread,’” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement. “The Administration continues to act quickly to address this impact on American workers.”

Some states, such as New York, have encouraged applications for the new benefits made available by the more than $2 trillion economic rescue enacted March 27 while other states still post guidance that does not reflect changes.

New York’s Department of Labor is alerting the newly unemployed to the possibility of 39 weeks of benefits with an additional benefit of $600 a week. It is accepting applications now for the benefits.

“The site is so deluged that it keeps crashing, because you literally have hundreds of thousands of people at any time trying to get on the site,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a March 31 press conference.

State officials said that call volume, normally about 50,000 daily, had reached 1.2 million the day before and 7.8 million the previous week.

Florida, by contrast, has posted guidance that does not reflect enhanced benefits offered by the economic rescue bill. It refers to unemployment using its preferred term, reemployment assistance.

“You can file an application to determine the possibility of receiving Reemployment Assistance benefits,” the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity says, in its posted guidance on COVID-19. “However, self-employed individuals generally do not pay Unemployment Insurance taxes and are not eligible for benefits.”

The economic rescue package enacted last week includes many self-employed in the unemployment insurance benefits.

The association that represents state unemployment agencies in Washington referred to the importance of obtaining guidance from the Labor Department on how to implement the new benefits.

“States have been reviewing the new unemployment insurance options included in the CARES Act and once provided with further instructions from the federal government, will work to implement them as quickly and efficiently as possible,” the National Association of State Workforce Agencies said in a March 30 statement, using the acronym for the economic rescue legislation.

The Labor Department held a conference call on Wednesday at which Scalia and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump spoke about a new regulation that will govern paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave provisions of earlier coronavirus legislation. But neither took questions from reporters.

The department has provided some guidance on flexibility that states have to adjust unemployment eligibility based on the COVID-19 emergency. For instance, states may pay benefits if an individual is quarantined but expects to return to work or a worker leaves the job due to risk of infection or to care for a family member.

A senior Labor Department official, speaking on background, said that officials are working on guidance for state agencies that must administer the new unemployment benefits but did not provide a timeline for release.

Others states also report a surge in queries.

Francisco Gamez, a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission, said in an email that in the last 18 days, the agency had helped more than half a million people file for unemployment benefits, compared to 700,000 claims in all of 2019.

“We are expanding both our technological and staff capabilities to meet our current needs. We have extended our hours of operation and are open Saturdays. We are hiring new staff,” Gamez said. “We are committed to helping every single Texan in need.”

California’s Employment Development Department also reported a surge in benefit queries. For the week ending March 21, the agency processed 186,809 unemployment claims, roughly three times the level of the prior weeks.

“The EDD has reviewed the federal CARES Act and like all other states, we are currently awaiting further guidance from US Department of Labor (DOL) in order to implement the various provisions,” a spokesperson said earlier this week. “That includes all of the parameters needed to establish a new 13-week extension of benefits paid for by the federal government when someone exhausts their regular UI claim during an established timeline.”

“In addition, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a brand new program. EDD is working with deliberate speed to stand up this new program and the other new provisions to serve unemployed Californians,” the spokesman said, in an e-mailed statement.


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