The head of the state Division of Employment Security said the agency remains intent on clearing its backlog of unemployment claims by the end of this month — weather permitting.
When severe weather shuts down local public schools, efforts to whittle down the backlog is set back by more than 600 cases a day due to the impact on staffing at the agency as parents stay home to take care of their children, according to agency head Dale Folwell.
The backlog of jobless workers who had to wait more than three weeks to receive their first unemployment check was 12,800 at the end of February, Folwell told legislators at a committee meeting Wednesday.
Although that’s up from about 12,000 in January, Folwell said one-third of the cases involve “employed-but-laid-off issues” related to the recent bad weather — that is, workers who were furloughed from their jobs because of the weather. In many of those cases, the state is awaiting wage records from the employer to determine what the worker is entitled to.
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Legislators have been fielding complaints from constituents who need their unemployment checks to pay their mortgage and other bills.
Some progress has been made. Last month Folwell told legislators that some claims that were initially filed in November were backlogged. On Wednesday he said that all the cases received in November had been cleared.
The delays are being driven by the agency’s stepped-up efforts to crack down on paying benefits to workers who actually aren’t entitled to receive them and changes in the state unemployment benefits system that went into effect in July. The backlog was significantly smaller — 7,296 — in July.
Before Folwell took over the agency last year, it tended to quickly pay benefits even if it hadn’t heard from a claimant’s employer about the reasons he or she was let go.
That can be a problem because once the state starts paying unemployment benefits, it can’t legally stop until the claim has been adjudicated. Moreover, if the state pays benefits to an unemployed worker who ultimately is judged not to be entitled to the checks, the state goes after them to recoup the money.
“We owe it to the unemployed people in this state to get it right the first time,” Folwell said.
In cases where information provided by both the unemployed worker and the employer indicate that the worker is entitled to unemployment benefits, virtually all of those workers are receiving their checks within 21 days, Folwell said.
The backlog, he said, involves cases where there’s an issue and the state must adjudicate the case.
The backlog on cases that are adjudicated and then appealed by one of the parties was reduced from 14-to-16 weeks a little more than a year ago to 21-30 days as of January, Folwell said. The backlog on cases that go to the second level of appeals has been cut from 280 days to 53 days.
“Obviously, any time there is any case in our backlog, that is one case too many,” Folwell said.