Q&A: Indiana DWD officials discuss expired pandemic jobless benefits

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Federal pandemic unemployment programs ended Monday, cutting off extra payments to millions of people across the country, including thousands in Indiana.

The federal programs created under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act included extra $300 weekly payments and the extension of unemployment benefits to self-employed workers, who have traditionally not qualified for unemployment benefits in Indiana.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development has paid 881,000 Hoosiers a total of more than $9.2 billion. Thousands of Hoosiers were still receiving the additional pandemic benefits when they expired Monday.

Regina Ashley, chief unemployment insurance and workforce solutions officer at DWD, and Josh Richardson, DWD chief of staff, sat down with IBJ to talk about the expired benefits and what comes next.

What programs end this week? 

• Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which provided an additional $300 weekly unemployment payment.

• Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provided benefits to those who would not usually qualify, like the self-employed, gig workers and part-time workers.

• Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which allowed for an extension of benefits once regular benefits had been exhausted beyond the traditional 26 weeks.

• Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), which provided a $100 additional weekly benefit for individuals who were eligible for regular unemployment benefits but also earned at least $5,000 in self-employment income.

How many Hoosiers were receiving unemployment benefits when the federal pandemic benefits ended?

Regular unemployment insurance: 22,518

PUA (ends 9/6): 47,651

PEUC (ends 9/6): 44,543

Ashley: We have received more initial claims, more continued claims, paid more people and resolved more vouchers in just one year in 2020 than we did in the previous five years. And then if you look at what we’ve done so far in 2021, it’s also been more in 2021 than we did in the previous five years combined. It’s just pretty amazing the amount of people that filed and the individuals that were paid in a single year.

How did DWD send notices and communicate to the people who lost benefits starting this week? 

Ashley: We sent individualized notices to everybody that are claiming under those programs and have been for the previous 30 days. So we’ve looked back 30 days and sent notices to all those individuals. And in addition, it’s posted on our website and on your UpLink account. So, when they log into UpLink, there’s a banner, and that banner’s been there for quite a while.

Can someone still apply for backpay with these benefits as long as they were unemployed before Sept. 4?

Ashley: Yes. So, under the federal guidance, we will be leaving application open for the PUA program for 30 days. They still have 30 days to apply as long as their impact date was before September 4.

Will people receiving these benefits just immediately stop getting paid after this week?

Ashley: Yes. So, somebody has to file a voucher to get paid, right, and so those vouchers won’t be available for those pandemic programs. After benefit week ending 9/4.

Richardson: They’ll be able to file on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday this week for the week that just ended [9/4], not before. But after week 9/11 passes, they won’t. They won’t even have anything to fill out. There will be nothing there.

What aid is available for people who still need unemployment benefits outside of the federal pandemic unemployment programs?

Ashley: If they qualify for the regular UI program, they can absolutely apply. It depends on if they have had subsequent employment. They have to have weeks of employment to then qualify for unemployment. So, if they’ve had some subsequent employment, they can apply for regular, traditional UI and we’ll evaluate it to see if it’s available to them.

Richardson: That’s going to be rare, though. I don’t want to overstate how likely that’s going to be because for the vast majority of people, if they’re on the PEUC or PUA, they were only eligible because of the federal programs. That federal program’s gone, and so they lose that eligibility.

What is the difference between regular unemployment benefits and the benefits that just ended?

Richardson: So, forgetting the pandemic for a second. The first step for anybody filing an unemployment claim is, they file their claim with us, and we look for what we term as “monetary eligibility.” So what we’re looking for is, did they have wages and covered employment? Covered employment means they were a W-2 employee, right, they were earning wages as an employee of a business.

That’s the first test that we’re looking at. So, did you have sufficient earnings in covered employment such that you’re eligible? If yes, then we still have to try to determine why are you out of work? You know, did you quit for a good reason or were you fired for a bad reason or were you laid off? So, we’re still looking at that, but the core is the monetary eligibility.

And so then if they’re eligible they can collect up to 26 weeks of regular state unemployment compensation. When you talk about how these programs have changed, one is the … $300 [addition] to that weekly benefit amount. Then after you draw on your 26 weeks and you’ve exhausted your claim for regular unemployment benefits, usually you would be done.  With PEUC, they can go ahead and collect up to 79 weeks or they could with the end date of 9/4.

PUA though, the real key there is it was for people that were not monetarily eligible because they had no wages and covered employment. There was this new avenue that was available to them where they can roll over onto this pandemic assistance.

And there is this other group, though, that maybe could have been eligible for regular unemployment insurance. Before, we’d deny them because they didn’t meet the traditional state law requirements. They could still potentially access PUA if they were out of work due to COVID so, like, you know, childcare is a really good example. “I’ve had to leave my job because I have a child that I have to care for and they’re out of school.” We would deny them for their regular unemployment assistance because they were not able to be available for work, but we could pay them over PUA.

So, now these people roll off of all these federal programs, and there are a couple of categories [of] people who might be eligible, though I would say it’s not likely someone would be the group that maybe we originally deny for regular UI.

What programs does DWD have to help get people back to work?

Richardson: The Next Level Jobs program is a really good way for people to go if they are seeking training. … We also have programs through employers that basically help employers upskill employees that they’re bringing on through our employer training grants program. Also, our WorkOne offices have been for years trying to help connect people that are either unemployed or underemployed with jobs in their local communities. We also offer services like our Indiana Career Explorer tool, which helps people look just at career interests and some of that more basic like, what might I want to do next.

Do you think the end of the pandemic unemployment benefits will help address labor shortage issues?

Richardson: You know, we’ve continued to see private-sector employment increase in Indiana, lower unemployment rates than our neighbors, and lots of job postings as you can see, you know, 140,000 job postings [as of Sept. 1], and so, we are excited to see those jobs be filled. It’s part of our duty to try to help connect people with those job postings, but really I think time will tell. And we’ll see as people move back to work and as the economy hopefully continues its progress.

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