Unemployment claims surge amid COVID-19

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

When Mama T’s Italian Steakhouse temporarily closed its door on March 13 due to COVID-19, Rhonda Holmes, 40, of Huntingburg lost her job for the foreseeable future.

Holmes manages the Huntingburg restaurant, and while she expects to be able to return to work when the pandemic passes, for the last few weeks, she’s been out of work. She applied for unemployment insurance on March 15 and received her first check on April 1.

Holmes is not alone. Across Indiana, there were 53,608 new unemployment claims — called initial claims by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development — from March 15 to March 21, according to data on Hoosiers By The Numbers, a website maintained by the Research and Analysis division of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. That’s up from 2,312 new claims the previous week. From March 22 to March 28, the state saw 120,331 initial claims filed.

Hoosiers By The Numbers excludes denied initial claims from the data.

Dubois County also saw a large jump. From March 15 to 21, 158 initial claims were filed in the county, while the previous week had so few that a number couldn’t be published due to non-disclosure concerns. From March 22 to 28, 533 initial claims were filed in the county, according to Hoosiers By The Numbers.

According to a Thursday morning press release from the U.S. The Department of Labor, which provides data to the IDWD, 133,639 initial claims were approved across the state during the first week in April, down 5,535 claims from the previous week. Data for individual Indiana counties is not yet available.

The Department of Labor is attributing the increase in unemployment claims across the country to COVID-19.

To apply for unemployment, Holmes logged on to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and filled out the online application — the only way to apply for unemployment in Indiana. She soon found herself fighting with the website that was running slowly and constantly kicking her out. She called the customer service number to see what the problem was, only to find that the phone lines were down.

“It was like that for two weeks,” she said.

She was able to file her claim and receive her first payment on a debit card. She called the number on the card to tell them the phone lines at the DWD were down. She also reached out to her legislators.

“My thing wasn’t so much about me,” she said. “It was to know how to help other people. When you get unemployed, you need that to be available to you in a timely fashion.”

The phone line issue has since been fixed, but Holmes said the website is still running slowly. Each week, she has to log on to file a continuing claim. Last week, she said, it took her about 45 minutes.

In a video update posted to the IDWD Facebook page Wednesday, Chief Unemployment Insurance and Workforce Solutions Officer Gina Ashley acknowledged the issues the system is experiencing and encouraged patience since the office is processing the highest volume of claims to date. Usually, Ashley said, the busy season brings 2,000 to 3,000 claims in a week. Last week, she said, there were about 145,000.

In the hourlong video — available at www.facebook.com/pg/IndianaDWD/videos/ — Ashley and IDWD Chief of Staff Josh Richardson offered directions about how to apply for unemployment insurance, information about who qualifies and changes to the program brought on by executive orders from Gov. Eric Holcomb and the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act. One of the changes adds 13 federally-funded weeks to the eligibility period, bringing the total weeks a person can be on unemployment in Indiana to 39 rather than 26. Another adds a $600 payment from the federal government on top of the payment from Indiana, which Richardson said should start going out the week of April 20 and be retroactive to March 29. The changes have also opened unemployment benefits to people who usually would not qualify, such as the self-employed, independent contractors and parents who are not working because the schools and day cares are closed.

In the video, Richardson and Ashley emphasized the importance of filling out the applications honestly and of reading the Claimant Handbook and frequently asked questions, both of which are on the IDWD website, prior to filling out the application. Also, applicants can expect it to take about three weeks for an initial claim to be processed and the first payment to be received, though the first payment will cover each week the claimant was eligible for unemployment insurance while the claim was being processed.

The application and information can be found at www.in.gov/dwd/.

Natasha Liecke 36, of Huntingburg knows what it’s like to wait for unemployment insurance payments to come through. Liecke works as an expedited delivery driver for Hammer Down Haulin’. When the number of runs decreased due to COVID-19, she had a few weeks where she ran no runs and had no income. She applied for unemployment insurance on March 15 and didn’t get a payment until April 1. In the weeks between filing and receiving her money, she struggled to get a hold of someone at the office to find out why she hadn’t heard about her application. The week after she filed, she sent an email, but didn’t get an email back until a week later. She also called every day, but couldn’t get through until a few days before she got her payment. Turned out there was an old issue from when she made a claim last year.

Liecke said that as soon as she got a hold of someone, they quickly resolved the issue, but it was still a stressful few weeks for the mother of two. She’s now behind on some of her bills.

“I’m going to have play catch up,” she said.

Fortunately, she’s had some work the last two weeks and hasn’t had to draw on her claim — which expires April 18 — the last two weeks. But with delivery driving, she said, you just never know.

“I’m sure I’m going to have to draw more in the future because of this,” she said.




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com