COVID Relief — Fail

The first absurd assumption is that people who need income assistance during COVID have computers or access to the internet. They might have had smart phones at one point, but not now when they don’t have food.

I can only hope that other states are more skilled in dispensing unemployment assistance than Arkansas. The Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (DWS) has lots of problems, in particular with COVID unemployment money meant for people who are (were) self-employed.

Traditionally, unemployment benefits have never applied to the self-employed. State law requires employers to buy unemployment compensation policies for their employees. No law requires such backup for those who work for themselves.

I got into this issue because I’m helping a neighbor, a 58-year-old man [I’ll call him Bill] skilled in building trades, specifically carpentry, drywall finishing, and painting. Bill owns no property, has no savings, and possesses a few tools of his trade plus a 2001 Dodge Dakota that’s one wheeze away from vehicular death. He lives hand to mouth. He can do just about anything, his livelihood forged over decades of getting by any way he could.

By June 2020 when the CARES Act passed Congress, he told me he didn’t know how to get money through the program even though it promised unemployment income for the self-employed. I agreed to help.

The information, application, and weekly claims go through the DWS website in the PUA special page for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. But Bill doesn’t have a computer. His phone doesn’t have data – he can’t afford it. So on my computer, I’ve filled out his information and filed weekly claims. At first, the process involved stating what aspects of COVID kept him from working, in his case that his workplaces were shut down and jobs he was supposed to start had been cancelled. The application then required him to state whether he was receiving benefits from any other source. Then he had to verify the information was accurate.

It was a huge relief for Bill (and me) when he received a debit card with money flowing in from the claims we filed weekly. He could buy groceries, pay rent, and repair his truck.

About three or four months in, the state suddenly started requiring him to name at least three job contacts he had made that week and any work he’d done. There was no statement in advance that he would have to make job contacts in order to receive benefits, so a few weeks of claims were denied. Once I figured out the requirement, I let him know and he started making phone calls and checking in with people he had worked for.

Nothing had changed. Nobody was hiring interior labor and damn few outside construction jobs were hiring. Still, he made the required effort so we could state on the unemployment claim forms that he met those requirements.

Then he fell and cracked a bone in his arm, so for three weeks I noted on his claim form that he had broken his arm and couldn’t work. Well, that’s not COVID related, so they didn’t pay him for those weeks.  

Once he got better enough to handle his tools, we filed more claims but they didn’t send any money. Blank claims forms did not appear on his PUA page and there was nothing to fill out. He had no other income and the infection rate in our area was in the top five worst of the entire nation. Afraid to try to work even if jobs had been open, he began pawning his tools. His phone shut off. His truck insurance expired. He went to a church for food handouts and I gave him sacks of groceries to keep him from starving during the holidays.

In early January, I went again to the PUA page and found claim forms available back to November. So I filed claims for him through mid-December. So far he’s received just over $700.

He now has a working phone again, but he’s three months behind on his electricity bill. His arm is permanently bent from the cracked bone near his elbow because he had to cut and split firewood before it was fully healed in order to keep himself, his dog, and the plumbing in the house where he lives from freezing. Fortunately, his rental is on wooded property where he could cut trees. He did receive the recent $600 stimulus check and is using it to reinstate insurance on his truck and get some of his tools out of pawn.

But I can’t file any more claims for the new round of PUA unemployment because the AR DWS is apparently incapable of providing coherent support for the process. After a delay throughout most of January 2021, citing technological issues, their website offers now PUA information with instructions as follows:

“…PUA has been extended under the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act. The PUA extension will provide additional weeks of benefits, to a maximum of 50 weeks, ending with the week of March 13, 2021. Weekly certification, identification, and documentation will be required.

“If your application is approved, you will need to file continued claims for each week you are unemployed to receive benefits. The work search requirement is now in effect, and you must report the number of job contacts when filing your weekly claim. The one-week waiting period is also back in effect.

“Submit your application and file weekly claims for PUA benefits online at www.pua.arkansas.gov/home   Sunday – Saturday: 6 am – 6 pm

“If you have trouble filing online, or if you have questions regarding your account, you may call the hotline 844-908-2178 Monday – Saturday 6 am – 6 pm

“Those eligible will also receive the additional $300 FPUC for weeks claimed starting with the week ending January 2, 2021 and ending with the week ending March 13, 2021.

“You will be required to verify your ID to receive PUA benefits. You will receive notice in the mail and/or via email with instructions on how to complete the process. If you have already verified your ID, you do not have to do it again. If you are unable to verify your ID online, you may present your identification in person at a local DWS office or at an Arkansas Workforce Center.

“You will be required to provide documentation showing proof of employment/self-employment or planned employment/self-employment. You must submit the following supporting documents:

“1. Proof of earning from the last tax year or other financial documents. Until documents are received, the minimum PUA benefit amount will be applied.

“2. Documentation substantiating employment or self-employment or the planned commencement of employment or self-employment.

Needless to say, there is no hope of actually speaking with someone at that hotline number. The laconic voice on the recording remarks on ‘the high call volume’ and regrets there is no one who can take the call at this time. The caller is referred to their website.

To date, Bill has received no mail or email instructing him how to verify his identification.

The website allows no entry to Bill’s previous account, claiming the password is wrong. We did not change his password. Attempts to obtain password assistance are supposed to result in an email with instructions, but no emails have been forthcoming.

The website does not provide any information about what exactly they meant in item #2, “documentation substantiating self-employment” or “plans to commence self-employment.” If Bill had self-employment or plans for work, he wouldn’t need PUA money. More to the point, would it have killed them provide an EXAMPLE of how to document “plans to commence self-employment”???????

Without any further explanation of what exactly the documentation for such ‘plans’ might comprise, how is one to meet the requirement?

The PUA Handbook states that: “The PUA weekly assistance amount will be calculated in accordance with Arkansas Employment Security law. The weekly assistance minimum is $133 per week and the maximum is $451 per week. The weekly amount shall be the weekly amount of compensation that individual would have been paid as a regular unemployment insurance compensation unless the weekly benefit amount is less than 50% of the average weekly payment of regular unemployment insurance benefits. The maximum weekly benefit amount shall not exceed the maximum weekly benefit amount of regular unemployment insurance benefits payable in the state. … [and on and on with more incomprehensible drivel]

At one point in their PUA handbook, DWS states that “The weekly assistance amount payable to you will be reduced by the amount that you have received for a week or will receive for a week based on the following criteria: [four income sources that don’t apply to Bill] and…Gross earnings in excess of 40% of your Weekly Assistance Amount.” So, apparently, if your weekly assistance amount is $133 and you earn $55 that week, your assistance will be $78 which tops out your $133. Or not?

We won’t know from one week to the next whether Bill will find work or whether his “plans to commence work” will be considered adequate by whatever mysterious criteria they use.

I’m a college graduate and fairly skilled dealing with bureaucracy. I’ve plowed through the formation of more than one small business corporation and a couple of nonprofits. If I can’t make sense of this bullshit, how is a man of limited resources and a high school education supposed to negotiate the process?

Answer: He’s not.

That’s the entire point. Throw up as many barriers as possible – lack of access, incomprehensible “information,” verification requirements that are impossible to meet – and voila you have a program that is just about as worthless as the paper it’s written on.

I’m outraged for him. I’m outraged for all the other self-employed people who make up a huge segment of our economy who have been left in the ditch by COVID – gig-workers like musicians, audio guys, recording studios etc., as well as carpenters, painters, and other repair folks, plus restaurants and night clubs and other venues that have been forced to close. These people are losing their homes, their vital services, everything that they depended on to earn a living and survive.

As I said at the start of this rant, I hope other states are far better in providing PUA funding to the people who need it. This isn’t the first time I’m been ashamed and outraged by the failures of Arkansas government. I don’t have any hope that things will improve in the near term. But I just wanted to make people aware that despite federal efforts to extend a helping hand, many of those in Arkansas who need help AREN’T GETTING IT.

4 Comments

  1. Denele, This persons story could be mine…sent home “for my protection”. Surprised when I applied for and got Unemployment. My former employer signed off and I was eternally grateful. It was just a little part time gig but got me up and out of the house for a few hours. When the 1st round ran out I got an “extension” for a few more weeks and then hit a brick wall. From that point on I get letters saying come to the office. No help on line. NOT GETTING OUT is the whole point of the stay safe guidelines.

    Ruth G. Collier 479 582 0019 plz leave msg

    Reply

  2. This was excellent. As I’ve said, your friendship has been his lifeline. I think you should submit this to the Dem-Gaz, perhaps the state edition as well. It probably would need to be shortened, but maybe not, for a guest editorial. Or if they turn you down, maybe Brummett would quote you in his articles. Or somehow get it out there past blog stage. Amazing isn’t it that in this day of massive “communication” that we can’t communicate. I know that’s one reason social media has succeeded so well, but there’s still importance in the local scene in local media about real local folks, etc. You’ve grabbed that perfectly. Cheers and please don’t blow your brains out—the ABC-XYZ departments of the government, state and fed, will do that for you gladly. F

    >

    Reply

    1. Thanks for encouraging words and suggestions on how to move this info past blog stage. I will try for Brummett as I have zero faith in Dem-zette. But may push my envelope with them as well.

      Reply

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