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Town hall fields unemployment questions

During a state Department of Labor and Industry teletown hall Thursday, a caller spoke of her attempts to get extended unemployment compensation benefits through a special program created to help workers deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The caller had exhausted her regular benefits in September, her “base year” ended in February, and she was planning to file for the 13 additional weeks available through the special program, but on the advice of her sister, she had instead applied for regular unemployment, which she now figures was a mistake.

“I think I really complicated things,” the caller said. “I’m kind of panicking.”

“Don’t worry,” was the message from Susan Dickinson, the department’s director of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy, who was answering questions for the teletown hall.

The caller can apply for the special Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program online, Dickinson said. The caller only had to answer a few questions, then go online and file for compensation for the weeks for which she is eligible, Dickinson said.

Teletown halls and weekly news conferences have become a staple for the department, which has been inundated with 2.4 million unemployment compensation claims since the COVID-19 shutdowns in mid-March.

The sessions explain to those who need help what it’s doing to provide it and why it’s not happening sooner or more smoothly.

While the department has been overwhelmed with claims, it has also had to ramp up three special programs — PEUC, which provides the 13 weeks of extended benefits, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which temporarily provides an extra $600 a week in addition to unemployment, and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides unemployment help for the first time to the self-employed, contractors and gig workers.

To handle the claim surge, the department has hired 312 workers, bringing UC staff to 1,491, and accepted 358 employees from other offices and state agencies, according to a news release.

Department employees have worked 100,000 hours of overtime.

Since the surge began, the department has paid out $12.3 billion in benefits — $6.9 billion of that from regular UC, $4.6 billion from FPUC, $783 million from PUA and $11 million from PEUC, according to a news release.

Because of the great volume of questions and requests, the department’s call lines have been overwhelmed, although they’re less clogged on Thursdays and Fridays, according to Dickinson.

The email system is also swamped.

There’s also fraud all over the country in the PUA program, according to Labor Secretary Jerry Oleksiak.

The fraudsters are using stolen identities and applying for funds to be routed into their own bank accounts, he said.

To foil the fraud, the department has been making payments only with paper checks, although there have been instances of people who didn’t apply for help receiving them, according to Dickinson.

Those checks need to be returned, Oleksiak said.

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