More than a tenth of the state’s civilian labor force, or 90,000 people, filed for unemployment benefits last month as the coronavirus dealt a crushing blow to an already ailing West Virginia economy.
With layoffs and business closures mounting and state unemployment officials working with the feds on claims, some people were left wondering when or whether they’d get the help they need.
Charleston-based small business owner and community organizer Kayla Young applied about two weeks ago for benefits. In the summer, she runs Eggs Will Roll, a portable food kiosk that’s a staple at such events as Live on the Levee. During the rest of the year, Young lobbies at the Capitol and helps organize community events.
“None of that is happening anymore. I knew a few weeks ago, when we started seeing things get canceled left and right, that I wasn’t going to be able to do what I normally do, have that income, so I applied,” Young said.
Classified as self-employed, Young was denied a week ago. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed last week by Congress extends unemployment benefits to independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed, but the system is not ready to process those claims.
Now Young waits.
A notice on WorkForce West Virginia’s website says the state agency is working with the federal government to get claims like Young’s ready, so there’s no reason for people to call.
“I’m OK for a little while. Not a long time, but enough to where I’m lucky; others aren’t,” Young said. “I’ve never had to apply for unemployment before, but I have for [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP]. The reality is that these programs, on a normal day, are not as accessible as they should be. Even outside of this, they are hard to navigate.”
The unemployment application page is confusing, she said. It’s unclear whether some boxes should be checked. Some questions could have multiple answers. The agency is swamped, so it’s hard to get anyone on the phone to answer questions, Young said.
“I feel for the workers there, too. They got thrown into this, and the system they’re working in is overwhelmed,” Young said.
WorkForce West Virginia is processing an average of 7,000 unemployment claims a day, according to a Friday news release by Gov. Jim Justice.
The governor said he would take “immediate action to massively expand” the agency’s claims-handling capacity, and, starting Monday, its call line would operate 24/7. The West Virginia National Guard also has been ordered to “spare no expense” in helping to process the backlog of claims. Guardsmen who have lost their private jobs will be employed at the agency, Justice said.
Jenna Blankenship, who worked as a server at a large corporate chain restaurant until last week, said she hopes her claim is processed soon. But she’s not sure it even was submitted.
“The website, you fill everything out, you think you’re done — at least you don’t see anything else — and you click ‘submit,’ and, well, that’s it,” Blankenship said. “I checked my email for like three days waiting for a confirmation. I never got one, so I called. They said if I filled it out, I’d get something in the mail, but that was all I got. They said they couldn’t even check if it was in the system.”
It took Blankenship three tries filling out the form to reach the “submit” page, she said. The website froze and reloaded in the middle of her application.
Blankenship’s husband works at a mechanic shop in Sissonville. With two young children at home, a single paycheck won’t sustain them for long, Blankenship said.
“They eat a lot,” she said, laughing. “God help us, boxed mac and cheese is only going to last so long in this house.”
Blankenship has considered trying to find other work but doesn’t know what she’d do for child care. Her parents live nearby but are at high risk for COVID-19.
The stimulus bill passed by Congress extends benefits to people who do not have access to child care, but those claims cannot yet be processed. Young has children at home and faces the same dilemma as Blankenship.
“I know Kroger is hiring, there are people needed at these places and I’m so appreciative for the people who do their jobs, but I’m not willing to be around that many people,” Young said. “I’m not willing to get my kids sick, myself sick, my parents sick. It’s not something I should have to do.”
That’s the point of the legislation approved by Congress, said Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. It clears barriers to unemployment benefits and adds support — an extra $600 a week — to ensure people can stay home.
“Yes, normal unemployment usually is less than what people made before as an incentive to get them back in the workforce as soon as they can, but right now we don’t want that,” O’Leary said. “We want people to stay home, not going to job interviews and working and putting themselves or their families at risk.”
Under the bill, workers at average pay levels would not see decreases in income. The extra money should allow them to meet their needs, pay rent and buy groceries, O’Leary said. The boost continues only until July.
“There is no tax break that we could pass, stimulus package or anything that at this point would get us out of the situation,” O’Leary said. “We’re waiting for the virus. That’s our timeline, and it could all change.”
This is the first recession that has started from the bottom up, O’Leary said. Service workers are the first affected instead of large institutions, like the banking industry.
That makes it difficult to assess what the real damage might be once businesses reopen and people return to work, O’Leary said.
“We don’t know if we’ll be able to start right back up again. The reality is, unfortunately, not every business is going to come back,” O’Leary said. “We don’t know what the reverse will be when we open things back up. Will we be back to normal and bounce back, or will this be dragged out?”
Past recessions have shown that the longer someone is out of work, the less likely they are to return, O’Leary said. It could take time for state unemployment rates to return to a baseline, he said.
“This is new territory for all of us,” O’Leary said. “What we’re doing right now is right. We’ll have to figure out what that means for the future, but we do not want people unnecessarily working now.”
Young, who is running for the state House of Delegates in District 35, said she hopes people come away with a better understanding of the unemployment system and other welfare benefits.
“I’ve never publicly spoken about needing help, and it makes me sad to feel that I was ashamed or embarrassed before, but it’s hard not to be sometimes,” Young said. “I hope the stigma will change because I don’t think people are aware how close they are to being in that situation until it’s here.”