More Arkansas Failure

You may remember my last blog post documenting the chaos ongoing at the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (DWS) and its utter failure to accommodate claims by self-employed workers for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Earlier this morning, I was on hold for over a half hour at which point the line went dead, a continuation of what is assuredly an endlessly futile effort to speak with a human at the state’s DWS offices on behalf of Bill, my neighbor who is owed, according to DWS policies, for claims going back to November 2020.

Bill and I learned back in January that no further PUA claims would be accepted until they had verified his identity. Nothing in their materials explained how to verify his identity but rather stated that he would be notified by mail or email as to the procedure.

A month later on Saturday February 13, Bill told me that he had received a letter from DWS demanding that he verify his ID within 7 days of the date on the letter. The letter was dated February 6. 7 + 6 = 13

On Monday, Feb. 15, Bill managed to wait on hold long enough to speak with someone at DWS on a phone number given to him by a friend, NOT the phone numbers listed for DWS. The man who answered the call took Bill’s information, verified him, and gave him a password so that he (I) could access his PUA account at arunemployment.com. It did not work.

Here’s the Feb. 15 follow-up email I wrote for Bill to the info email address for DWS

Regarding your recommendation via telephone on Feb 15, 2021, I am attaching photo of myself with ID card plus photo of ID card front and back. You gave me a temporary password of –xxx– but I can’t access the PUA claim page at www.pua.arkansas.gov/home. It won’t open. Is there a different web address I should use?

Please note that this email and all my access to the internet is through my neighbor, Denele Campbell, and her computer. She sent a letter this morning to your info email ADWS.Info@arkansas.gov The letter states:

 “Your letter dated Feb 6 to –xxx– was received Feb 13 by Mr. –xxx–. The letter requires him to present his state-issued ID at the local workforce center within 7 days of the date on the letter. 

“THAT IS NOT POSSIBLE. Not only did he not receive the letter within 7 days, our roads are impassable and will be impassable at least another 7 days.

Ms. Campbell has been the person filing Mr. –xxx–‘s PUA claims because HE DOESN’T HAVE A COMPUTER OR INTERNET. HIS PHONE DOESN’T HAVE DATA — when he can afford to have the phone working. He is desperately in need of money because he’s a self-employed construction worker and COVID has kept him away from most jobs for the last year.” 

You may respond to me through Ms. Campbell’s email or on my phone at —.

No big surprise that the email did not result in a response until Feb. 22, at which point the following email came through.

Good Morning,

Please contact the hotline number 1-844-908-2178. They are open from 6am to 4pm Monday through Saturday. Please use the following emails below if you cannot reach anyone by phone.

PUA.documents@arkansas.gov

ADWS.PUAHelp@arkansas.gov

Dear Reader, you may remember that telephone number. It is the unemployment hotline. For over three weeks, I’ve been dialing that number and waiting on hold for hours at a time, to no avail. Try it yourself for a fun time! Be sure to press #2 and #2 on the menu for PUA assistance.

Finally, last Friday the 19th after the roads were semi-passable, Bill drove to the Fayetteville DWS office and waited along with a very long line of other people standing outside in the freezing temps. He got there early enough to be #7 in line and soon sat face to face with a human who typed some info into his computer and told Bill he was now verified.

There is no accounting for the previous verification email we sent to DWS. Obviously whoever receives emails is so far behind they did not register the verification we sent within the five days that passed before he appeared in person at the local DWS office to – again – verify.

Now that he’s verified both by email and his in-person verification, I returned to the PUA webpage at DWS. The page won’t open.

Here’s today’s email to DWS:

I am the neighbor of PUA claimant –XXX–. Last year I filed his weekly claims. As of mid-January 2021, I could no longer access his account. Information from the DWS website informed us that until his identity was verified, he (I) would not be able to access the account. Those instructions said he would receive an email or letter telling him how to verify.

A month later on Feb. 13, he received a letter stating that he had seven days from the data on the letter to verify in person at the local DWS office. The letter was dated Feb 6. We were under eight inches of snow with subzero temperatures at the time. So I emailed photos of his state-issued ID front and back plus a photo of him holding the ID beside his face. No response.

On Feb. 19, Mr. X stood in a line at the Fay’vl DWS office until they had an opening at which point a DWS worker took his ID and information and told him he was now verified. Apparently the Feb 15 email identification information had not been processed into the system as of five days after it was sent.

Upon the Feb 19 verification, the DWS employee stated that he could now access his PUA account at the DWS unemployment site.

WRONG. The website will not open. I AM THE ONE WHO HAS TO FILE HIS CLAIMS. HE DOES NOT HAVE A COMPUTER.

What is the problem? I can’t spend even more hours on hold waiting for a real person to answer the phone. The Fay’vl DWS office says they don’t handle anything to do with PUA except to verify IDs. 

Why is it beyond the capacity of the State of Arkansas to gear up for this ridiculous situation by adding more hotline numbers and more personnel to handle what is obviously a large number of people who need help????????

Can somebody please HELP me gain website access for Mr. –xxx—so that he can file his PUA claims?

It’s difficult to imagine how incompetent (also, how understaffed) DWS must be for these kinds of dead ends to continue. The process runs in perpetual loops. It’s not that expensive to add more hotline numbers, but I suspect the problem is that even with only one hotline number, there isn’t enough staff to handle the call volume.

Same holds true for responses to emails from people who need help. There is NO EXCUSE for this level of dysfunction at a state agency charged with providing a lifeline to people who can’t work. Bill picked up a short-term construction job two weeks ago – working on a roof in freezing temperatures – before the snowpocalypse kept him at home for a week.

By the way, I’m now on hold again. For the last half hour. Bill’s phone has been shut off and he’s living on money from pawning tools. Tools that he uses to earn income.

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.

The Poverty of Conservatism

 

A continuing crisis plagues Arkansas. Like a snake eating its tail, poverty, addiction and mental illness, teen pregnancy, sexual violence against women, and low educational achievement perpetuate themselves as a result of entrenched conservative thinking. Costs for addressing these problems continue to skyrocket while the state’s earning power lingers near the bottom.

Where do we cut the snake?

Arkansas ranks 48th out of 50 states in terms of poverty. In 2015, 19.1% percent of the state’s households—one fifth—have incomes below the federal poverty line of $24,250 for a family of four.[1]  For 2016, the state’s population of 2,887,337 included 550,508 people living in poverty.[2]

In a direct correlation to the poverty rate, the state ranks 39 out of 50 states in how well students are educated.[3] The state slips further down the scale for persons 25 years of age when considering the following factors: Only 84.8% graduate high school. Only 21.1% obtain a bachelor’s degree, a ranking that puts Arkansas at 48th out of 50. And only 7.5% obtain graduate degrees, a rank of 49 out of 50.[4]

We hover near the bottom at 46 in terms of mental illness in a compilation of 15 factors including all ages, availability of treatment, and addiction rates.[5] Between 2010 and 2014, over one third of teens in need of mental health treatment did not receive it while over 53% of adults did not. Only 20% of Arkansas residents with drug dependence and 10% with alcohol dependence received treatment.[6]

The state consistently ranks in the top five for teen pregnancies with up to 80 births per 1000 occurring among teen girls ages 15 to 19. Of these, 60% are white, 27% are black, and 11% are Hispanic. Counties with the highest rates included Sevier, Nevada, Arkansas, St. Francis, Mississippi, Jackson, and Randolph.[7]

According to a 2014 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Children born to teen parents are more likely to enter the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and to become teen parents themselves. Every year, thousands of young Arkansans enter one or both systems. Research shows that, nationwide, the children of teen mothers are twice as likely to be placed in foster care as their peers born to slightly older parents. Sons of teen mothers are 2.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than the sons of mothers aged 20 to 21.[8]

The crisis becomes most apparent in the number of Arkansas children in foster care. From March 2015 to March 2016, the total number of available and in-use beds in foster homes increased from 2,801 to 3,306, but the number of foster children also increased, from 4,178 to 4,791. A 2016 report states that substance abuse by caregivers accounts for over 50% of children in foster care.[9]

Despite such high rates of teen pregnancies, many Arkansas school districts do not provide any sex education. Many others offer abstinence-only education including a virginity pledge (14 districts[10]), a ridiculous non-starter since census records show that over 52% of Arkansas teens are sexually active. Only seven school districts provide comprehensive sex education addressing contraceptives, sexually transmitted infection, abortion, and sexual orientation.

The Centers for Disease Control report that 37.4% to 38.5% of women in Arkansas experience at least one event of sexual violence during their lifetimes. These experiences include rape, sexual coercion, and/or unwanted sexual contact.[11] Among sexually active teens, 18% of females report acts of violence (being hit, slammed into something, or injured with an object or weapon on purpose by someone they were dating) and 16% reported being raped.[12]

Are Arkansas citizens somehow genetically predisposed to suffer these conditions? Is it something in the water? Or might the answer be found in the conservative mindset of a majority of Arkansas citizens?

Arkansas ranks 5th in the number of churches per capita. Seventy percent of adults define themselves as ‘highly religious’ with 65% saying they pray daily and 77% saying they believe in God with absolute certainty.[13] The predominant religion practiced in Arkansas is Southern Baptist, a conservative Protestant sect which believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Predictably, any push for sex education and contraceptives in public schools provokes conservative outrage. By religious thinking, unwanted pregnancies serve as punishment for illicit sex. The burden borne by women in unwanted pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare is God’s retaliation for the sins of Eve. As stated in Southern Baptist doctrine, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”[14] Prevention either through birth control or abortion upends the natural order of things as ordained by God.

The prevailing idea of conservative parents is that talking about sex and especially advocating for birth control of any kind creates a permissive attitude wherein teens are more likely to have sex. Data clearly dispute this belief. But the refusal to accept widely accepted evidence about the effectiveness of sex ed fits perfectly with the greater mindset of religious conservatives: willful ignorance about any and all information that doesn’t square with religious teachings.

Under the belief that addiction or non-marital sexual activity are moral failings, many efforts to address non-marital sex, sexual abuse or substance abuse rely on faith-based programs. Yet as noted by a counselor with twenty years in faith-based addiction treatment, “Often times, Christian programs view the secular approach to recovery as counterproductive to their message and will often discredit and even disregard medical or empirical based advice to addiction recovery.”[15]

While embracing some aspects of modern science and the advances of civilization such as automobiles, cell phones, DVRs, and medical progress, conservatives refuse to acknowledge other key findings of our times. Early religions strictly regulated a woman’s sexual activity out of concern for proving paternity and reducing conflict between competing males, among other things.  None of that matters today. Genetic testing quickly solves questions of paternity. But religion has become so institutionalized its practitioners can’t back up far enough to consider its origins or usefulness.

There’s a blind adherence to the tradition of making babies as the primary goal in life.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that teen pregnancy leads to lack of education which in turn leads to poor employment opportunities, or that a state with a high rate of poorly educated adults won’t attract many employers. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that poorly educated people with poor job opportunities are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol or suffer other forms of mental illness. Inadequate nutrition also plays a role, another cause and result of mental illness and poverty.

Further, an embattled position in poverty with subpar education leads people directly to unreasoned fear of Other—xenophobia and racism.

We have to start with the head of the snake. If we hold any hope of interrupting this vicious cycle, our state and national educational standards must require sex education. Such requirements must be imposed even in private, religious, and home school settings.

The requirements can’t stop there. All children must be required to learn the basics of science, history, political science, and other fields that serve as major elements in critical thinking about the modern world. While the state cannot dictate whether someone embraces any particular religion, we can dictate that our children are adequately prepared to make an informed choice about what to believe.

We cannot allow reactionary religious beliefs and tribalism to undo what civilization has achieved thus far.

The hue and cry against such reforms in education will be loud and long. State and federal legislators will be hard pressed to maintain a firm stance in the face of entrenched dogmatic beliefs. It will take true leaders to enact reforms in a time when leadership seems missing from public life. That means we must elect educated progressives who will carry the weight. The future of our nation depends on it.

~~~

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_poverty_rate

[2] https://talkpoverty.org/state-year-report/arkansas-2016-report/

[3] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education  The

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_educational_attainment

[5] http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/ranking-states

[6] https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2015_Arkansas_BHBarometer.pdf

[7] “Say no to sex, most state districts teach,” Ginny Monk. Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Sunday September 24, 2017. Page 1.

[8] http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/teen-pregnancy-in-arkansas.aspx

[9] “Children in foster care in Arkansas reaches all-tine high.” Brian Fanney. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 22, 2016. Online access October 18, 2017

[10] “Say no to sex, most state districts teach”

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf

[12] https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/national-and-state-data-sheets/adolescent-reproductive-health/arkansas/index.html

[13] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/how-religious-is-your-state/?state=arkansas

[14] http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/basicbeliefs.asp

[15] http://www.addictioncampuses.com/resources/addiction-campuses-blog/3-reasons-christian-rehabs-dont-work-according-to-a-pastor/