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WorkForce West Virginia offices are pictured on April 3 in Huntington.

CHARLESTON — Thousands of people are awaiting unemployment money more than a month after a program to provide aid amid the pandemic went live in West Virginia.

Some are fighting hunger and facing eviction from their homes.

Payments to Dana Phillips, of Jefferson County, stopped more than a month ago without explanation after she initially received them. Brittany Crouse, of Raleigh County, went 13 weeks without income and no unemployment payments until Wednesday, when she received her first allotment. Even then, it was less than it should have been, she said.

Both women and others are frustrated. They want an explanation from WorkForce West Virginia, the agency in charge of unemployment benefits in the state. Some tune into Gov. Jim Justice’s daily COVID-19 briefings, awaiting answers and getting none.

“We need reasons, and we’re seeing — the governor is having these press conferences every day … and we hear almost nothing about what’s happening with unemployment. When they do talk, it’s about the positive things,” Phillips said. “No one wants to acknowledge us or the problems in this system. For them, I guess it’s better if we stay quiet, but we can’t.”

What’s known as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system was established through the federal CARES Act to extend unemployment benefits to contractors, gig workers and self-employed people who lost their income amid the pandemic and do not qualify for traditional unemployment. In West Virginia, the system began accepting claims April 24.

Scott Adkins, acting commissioner of WorkForce West Virginia, said the system here, like others nationwide, has been inundated with fraudulent claims, nearly 35,000 of them made from June 1 to June 12. In its first month, the system received roughly 30,000 legitimate claims, Adkins said.

Many of those were filed by people like Phillips, who had been without work for nearly two months. She worked as a contractor with businesses in the Charles Town area before they shut down for the pandemic. Her claim was approved three weeks after she applied, and her first payment, including back wages, was deposited into her bank account May 18. She received another payment following that one and none since.

She initially thought Memorial Day caused the delay.

“But then it’d been a while,” Phillips said, “and I called and called and when I was finally able to get people on the phone, I got different answers from everyone. They had no idea and just kept telling me to wait a few more days just in case.”

Wheeling church musician Michael Hamilton’s last paying gig before the program went online was March 8. He, too, received money initially with backpay but has gone the past three weeks with nothing. He estimated he’s spent more than 24 hours on the phone with WorkForce West Virginia, most of the time on hold.

The agency told both Hamilton and Phillips that their accounts had been flagged because of an “IP error” and said all either could do was wait.

“The people on the phone — I don’t blame them; I can’t imagine what they’re dealing with — but there’s no consistent information. They make promises all the time,” Hamilton said. “They tell us it’ll be three more days, or wait until Friday, and those pass and nothing changes. They tell us they can’t access our account, or it’s an issue with the vendor, or they don’t know where the money’s being held. Everyone is hearing different information. We don’t know what’s true. No one does.”

Adkins said the fraudulent claims all were linked to direct deposit. Scammers have used Social Security numbers and other information — potentially accessed through data breaches at large companies in recent years — to apply for benefits to be directly deposited into their bank accounts or on prepaid cards. The state has stopped using direct deposit for new claims. The FBI and other state and federal agencies are investigating, Adkins said.

Everyone in the system was sent a message in their WorkForce West Virginia account — not in email — about the problem. Some people were instructed to upload documents to receive the new deposits, Adkins said.

But the trouble with fraud might not be the culprit for the delays seen by Phillips, Hamilton and others, Adkins said.

“It could be,” Adkins said. “I can’t give you a blatant answer on that. We will send you an initial payment if (the claim) meets the minimum eligible criteria, but other issues could arise after that. There are so many different variables that go into why a claim is held up. It really runs the gamut case-by-case.”

Clerical errors can delay payments. Sometimes people enter incorrect Social Security numbers or birthdays. Other cases are held up following contact with past employers.

Crouse, who was self-employed working in event preparation in Raleigh County before the pandemic, recently received her first payment after going without income since March. She said she was approved weeks before but never got an answer to why money wasn’t sent to her. The first check was big, she said, but it went quick.

“We had 13 weeks of bills to catch up on — gas, water, electric — and on top of that, we owed money to friends and family who helped us through,” Crouse said. “If it weren’t for them, we could have lost our house.”

Crouse and Phillips both were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program before applying for unemployment benefits. They were taken out of the food program when their unemployment benefits were approved. They were told they could reapply when the unemployment payments end. But they weren’t receiving that money.

“I get it — they told us that would happen. We were making more money — it made sense,” Phillips said. “But then the payments stopped. If we’re not getting that, now I have nothing to buy my son food.”

The state Department of Health and Human Resources runs the food assistance program. But, agency spokeswoman Allison Adler said, questions about unemployment benefits should go to WorkForce West Virginia.

Added unemployment benefits through the CARES Act push most over the income levels set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to receive SNAP. Adkins believes this issue is something that needs to be corrected by Congress, not state agencies.

In the meantime, Phillips is taking care of her 11-year-old son.

“He eats like a horse,” she laughed. “Anything in front of him — it’ll be gone. Before the backpay came in, I had to ask someone for help for food. It’s very difficult. Your kid wants something and it’s just, ‘Sorry, buddy.’ Even if it’s a $7 toy. You feel like crap because you can’t afford that. You feel like a failure even while you know it’s not your failure, it’s (West Virginia’s).”

Crouse, who has a 7-month-old daughter at home, said they would have faced eviction without help in recent months.

Phillips said she feels lucky and worries about others who lack support.

“This is taking over our lives. Every day you’re worrying about when you’re going to get paid because you can’t worry about anything else, and we’re strung along and told to be patient,” Phillips said. “Well, I can’t buy my groceries with patience. I can’t support my son with patience. I’m running out of patience.”

Phillips is working to get more communication and answers from the state. Through private Facebook groups, where hundreds of West Virginians are posting daily about similar struggles and frustration, Phillips is trying to organize.

“We don’t know what’s next. Do we protest, show up at the WorkForce offices throughout the state? Do we just continue calling and calling until they get it together?” she asked. “We don’t know, but we need to show them this isn’t working, and we need to get them to hear us. That’s a big part of what we want: to be acknowledged and given real answers. It doesn’t seem there’s anyone who wants to do that, though.”

Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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