NewsPublic Affairs / August 7, 2020

Frustrated And Feeling Helpless, Many Still Wait On Unemployment Benefits

Original story from   IPBS-RJC

Article origination IPBS-RJC

Hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers lost their jobs and income by no fault of their own due to the pandemic. For many, an extra $600 unemployment benefit helped them stay afloat. Then it expired.

But some workers say they’ve waited weeks, sometimes months, for any payment at all from the Department of Workforce Development.

For 12 weeks, Rebecca Schreck has waited for unemployment benefits.

Her husband, Tom Gross, suffers from severe respiratory problems and doctors tell him he only has a few years to live. They both get small stipends for disability, but Schreck works to help pay for medicine and other things that money doesn't cover. 

The online unemployment system claims Schreck is working full-time. But lately she only gets scheduled three or four hours a week at a Subway sandwich store. 

“I’m struggling to pay bills, struggling to get my husband’s meds which he needs to survive," she said. "It is just a mess."

Schreck said she’s sent at least 50 emails and made 20 phone calls to the Department of Workforce Development, but no one has fixed her issue. 

In the meantime, the couple – married just a year ago in a courthouse – has taken thousands they were saving to have a public ceremony with friends and family. Then a honeymoon, originally planned for Universal Studios so they could see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

“It’s like, you guys say you want to help the people: So help the people and don’t ignore us,” Schreck said.

In Indianapolis, Karina Oertel waited for months. She's a brand ambassador at trade shows and professional sports games downtown. So when the pandemic struck in March, all her gigs got canceled. A little afterward, she got some big news.

“I guess I didn’t mention that I’m pregnant right now,” she said. “I’m 25 weeks pregnant [and] I have a single income.” 

When work dried up, Oertel jumped online and filed for unemployment benefits for the first time in her life and then she waited, and waited, and waited.

“I probably waited about a month before I thought ‘Wait a second, something’s not right,’" she said. "So then I started clicking around and I saw it said I was full-time employed. Which kind of blew my mind because obviously I’ve been at home, not working.”

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She called DWD about the mistake. They told her to just keep waiting – they were overloaded with issues and would have someone look at her case. Without an income she racked up debt on rent, food, and other bills.

Eight weeks in, she started writing handwritten letters and calling everyone in government she could think of. It took weeks before she finally reached an aide in Gov. Eric Holcomb's office who pulled up her account and said they would try to help.

More than 11 weeks in she finally got paid all the benefits she was owed. Oertel used the money to catch up on late bills, but now without the extra $600 benefit, she gets just $84 a week.

"Now it’s kind of hitting me," she said. "I’ve kind of come to the realization that if they don’t pass anything soon, I’m going to be in dire straits. I feel helpless. I can write letters all day long or I could go to a protest, but in the back of my head I’m thinking they’re only going to do what they’re going to do." 

The Department of Workforce Development has said many people get payment in 21 days or less. Those claims usually have straightforward work histories and get processed quickly and easily by an automated system. But for many people, finding and keeping work is kind of complicated – especially right now. 

Take Christina Rush for example. She drove school buses for Durham School Services – the main provider of transportation for Indianapolis Public Schools. Her company’s contract ended in the middle of the pandemic, so her and lots of other drivers went to another company.

But she wouldn't even make it to orientation – it was canceled when an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly afterward, IPS announced they would start school virtually, meaning there's no need for bus drivers yet. 

“So I’m just kind of in limbo right now," she said. "They’re saying October would be the earliest that we would have a return day to work.”

Rush stopped getting unemployment benefits even though she still hasn’t worked a single hour. DWD labeled her issue as a “normal customary shutdown.” It even told her she had to pay back some benefits.

“How could you possibly tell me that, because I applied for a job and accepted an offer, that now I owe you money?” she said. “I haven’t even received a check from these people. I haven’t even sat in a classroom for training.”

Meanwhile, she’s trying to support four daughters – one heading off to college in just weeks. 

Rush wants to be clear: She doesn’t personally blame the people who work in Indiana’s unemployment system. She knows they're swamped and we’re all still living in a pandemic. She even knows other people who have waited much longer for benefits. But it’s hard not to feel angry at the entire system sometimes. 

“Y’all can go home and feed your kids, y’all can go home and pay your bills," she said. "Ask a single parent what it’s like trying to make a meal stretch for a week, stretch $20 for gas for the week. That’s really what’s going on right now ... that’s the raw uncut truth. That’s what’s going on right now.”

Contact reporter Justin at jhicks@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @Hicks_JustinM.

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