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Labor officials see uneven progress on jobless benefits

Officials said 29 states are now paying the 13 weeks of extended benefits authorized by the third economic rescue package, or the additional $600 weekly benefit, or both

Labor Department officials reported progress by state agencies in paying newly authorized unemployment benefits at a press call on Wednesday, but they also acknowledged wide gaps in state implementation that have delayed payments.

Officials said that 29 states are now paying the 13 weeks of extended benefits authorized by the third economic rescue package, or the additional $600 weekly benefit, or both. Congress enacted the benefits to contain the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses closed amid health officials’ efforts to reduce social contact. 

Yet the Labor officials also reported correcting states that have been insisting that workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment first must apply and be denied, before applying for expanded benefits aimed at workers who fall outside traditional eligibility.

[States have differing speeds on jobless pay boost]

“We learned of that and we explicitly told the states that they should not require that futile initial step,” said a senior department official, who couldn’t be named under the ground rules for the call. “The requirement is merely that they are ineligible for traditional UI [unemployment insurance], not that they have gone through the full application process and been denied.”

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, in a statement delivered on the call, said delays in implementation, whether because of antiquated computer systems or unnecessary bureaucracy, will not stop workers from eventually getting the benefits Congress appropriated.

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“For workers in states that aren’t ready to pay these benefits right away, catch-up payments will be made later when the state’s computer systems are programmed to do so,” Scalia’s statement said.

He pointed to additional funding of $1 billion for administrative costs to help states cope with unprecedented increases in initial claims over recent weeks.

“We know that a number of states have now significantly increased staffing at their unemployment insurance offices, and we are seeing signs that states are getting past the operational problems that some experienced with the initial large increase in filings,” Scalia said.  

The department will release new initial unemployment claims data on Thursday. It has reported almost 17 million new claims in the three most recent weekly reports.

John Pallasch, the assistant secretary for the Employment and Training Administration, which handles unemployment, said that 46 states had applied for and received $520 million in emergency funding to cover administrative needs.

The confusion surrounding new categories of benefits was highlighted when one reporter asked the senior official why drivers for ride services like Uber or Lyft must produce a diagnosis from a “qualified medical professional” to obtain benefits.

“I’m a little confused by the question because there is no requirement either in the law or the guidance for a doctor’s note,” the official said. “The guidance that we drafted is intentionally targeted at allowing those individuals who are directly affected by the COVID virus to be eligible for that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is the unemployment insurance for gig workers and the self-employed.”

The official said that two states already are accepting applications for, and paying benefits included under the broader PUA categories, which cover not just the self-employed and gig workers but also part-time workers who may not meet regular earnings cutoffs, parents caring for children home from schools closed by the pandemic, workers remaining off the job because of immunity issues that could raise their risk of infection, and others.

Texas and Michigan are both accepting applications for PUA, but several other states are advising potential recipients not to apply until the states’ computer systems have been modified to handle the new benefits.

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