Workers are pushed to the brink as they continue to wait for delayed unemployment payments

Alexis Herdez has been filing for unemployment every week since April, shortly after she was laid off on her first day of work at a bridal clothing store.

But more than two months later, the 23-year-old in Lexington, Ky., has yet to receive any payment.

She and her husband have been struggling to pay rent and make their monthly car payment.

The automated phone system for the state’s unemployment system takes her to a queue for a callback that has yet to come. Visits to state offices have been fruitless. While Herdez was finally able to get an appointment with someone at the unemployment agency to look at her case, it’s not until August, she said.


The pandemic’s toll on workers who have been furloughed or laid off like Herdez is measured in numbers that splash across headlines: 1.4 million new weekly unemployment claims and 18 million people are already receiving continuous unemployment insurance. Tens of thousands of workers at Levi’s, Wells Fargo, and United Airlines learned this past week they could be furloughed or laid off in coming months, sending those workers to seek jobless benefits as well.

Four months into the worst recession since the Great Depression, tens of thousands of workers like Herdez across the country have filed for jobless claims but have yet to receive payments. Many are now in dire financial straits.

‘‘We’ve been only able to make half payments on everything,’’ Herdez said in an interview. ‘‘We bought a large amount of groceries and have been taking things out of the freezer, but as the weeks go by, it’s hard to figure out whether to pay bills or whether we have enough food to last the week.’’

The issue has spilled back into public view in recent weeks, as thousands of frustrated workers awaiting payments have camped out, sometimes overnight, in front of unemployment offices in states like Oklahoma, Alabama, and Kentucky.


The ongoing delays are the result of a confluence of crises, experts say.

A flood of new jobless applications — about 50 million — has overwhelmed state unemployment offices over the past four months. The agencies themselves are hampered by years of neglect. They rely on reduced staffs and badly outdated technology after years of budget cuts, often at the behest of business groups and Republican legislatures. Issues with fraud and user confusion over the new rules and filing process have further bogged down the process.

But cases like Herdez show what happens when workers simply run out of money and the social safety net malfunctions with defaulted payments and trips to food banks. In more desperate situations, workers become homeless.

‘‘We’ve kind of abdicated our responsibility to the unemployed,’’ George Wentworth, a senior counsel at the National Employment Law Project and an expert on unemployment insurance. ‘‘There need to be more standards and those standards need to be rigorously enforced by the federal government.’’

The Department of Labor does not track the percentage of unemployment benefits that have been processed, an agency spokeswoman said in an e-mail. The agency did not offer a comment on the issue of delays in processing benefits.

But previously unreleased data compiled by Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, illustrates the scope. By the end of May, about 18.8 million out of 33 million claims — 57 percent — had been paid nationwide. That number has steadily improved from 47 percent of paid claims at the end of April and 14 percent at the end of March.


In Wisconsin, where about 13 percent of claims remained unprocessed as of July 7, residents told local reporters that they had waited 10 weeks or longer for their claims to be processed, leaving some on the brink of bankruptcy and eviction. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development said through a spokesman that the average time from application to payment is 21 days. In Pennsylvania, another 15 percent of claims were still in review as of mid-June.

Oklahoma has approved 235,000 out of about 590,000 claims, with about 2,000 still under review as of June 21, but the state also has denied a whopping 350,000 claims, said Shelley Zumwalt, the interim director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. Zumwalt said a small portion of the denied claims — about 47,000 — are people who have applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program for gig and self-employed workers who must get rejected from regular unemployment insurance before qualifying for the expanded benefit for gig workers.

Nevada has also had issues processing these gig worker jobless claims, fulfilling only 74 percent of the 106,667 eligible PUA claims by June 19.

‘‘They keep saying ‘unprecedented.’ We’re four months into this — how unprecedented is it still?’’ said Samuel Jarman, 25, who filed for unemployment in Oklahoma in early April, after his start date at a new job to work on software for a payroll services company was pushed back indefinitely. ‘‘If you’re up front about it, it’s a lot better than just lying to our faces saying it’s all going smoothly.’’