Michelle Hansen has used up all of her savings. She’s cut the TV service. She declined to buy her children’s school pictures this year. She borrowed money from her father to buy toilet paper.
“It’s very embarrassing,” said Hansen of Sioux City, Iowa. “I’ve always been able to support myself. And I think I could be if I was getting the benefit I’m supposed to be getting.”
Hansen, 31, has seen her unemployment payments shrink this fall, a problem that Iowa Workforce Development staffers blame on the agency’s outdated computer systems.
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, all eyes are on Iowa. Get updates of all things Iowa politics delivered to your inbox.
After Hansen originally received $580 a week under the state’s standard unemployment program, an Iowa Workforce Development employee determined in August that she actually should receive benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the federal program created for some workers laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Iowa Workforce Development moved Hansen to a new category in the computer system, it inaccurately determined that Hansen should receive the program’s minimum weekly payment: $190 a week, after taxes. That is incorrect, but it’s what she’s been getting.
A single mother with two children, Hansen said she is three months behind on rent and worries her landlord will evict her or a utility company will cut off the power.
“I can’t survive on this much longer,” she said. “I’m not surviving now.”
More than seven months after the coronavirus pandemic caused mass business closures, sending tens of thousands of Iowa workers at once to apply for unemployment, some applicants said they’re still waiting for their proper payments – or, in some cases, any payments at all.
The applicants said they are supposed to be receiving money through the PUA program. But they said Iowa Workforce Development customer service representatives have told them the agency’s computer systems do not allow the staff to accurately administer their claims.
Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend did not answer the Des Moines Register’s specific questions about why workers are not receiving payments and how many people are affected.
In an email, she wrote, “We are aware of the issue and we are working diligently to resolve. Rest assured, we continue to work very hard to make sure all Iowans receive their unemployment benefits in as timely manner as we can.”
During a testimony before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in June, Townsend said that Iowa Workforce Development’s computer systems operate on code written in 1972.
Iowa Legal Aid general counsel Alex Kornya said lawyers have pressed the state agency for answers about what’s wrong with the computer systems. He said Iowa Workforce Development representatives are telling them only that the agency is trying to fix the bugs. In some cases, clients are facing evictions because they have no money.
“I am more than sick of this issue,” he said. “The computer is blamed for everything. If the law requires that benefits be paid, they have to be paid. Period.”
Iowa Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman said Iowa Workforce Development has experienced myriad issues adjusting its computers to new unemployment programs like PUA, which Congress created in March.
In some cases, workers applied for the program without supplying tax documents that proved how much money they earned before the pandemic. The state awarded them the minimum weekly payments. When those workers later supplied tax filings that showed they should receive more, state employees have not been able to tweak the computer’s settings to issue greater benefits.
“The software upgrades that are needed to process those payments still need to happen,” Hirschman said.
She said computer coding errors are also preventing some Iowans who are eligible for PUA payments from getting them at all. That includes unemployed workers who owe the state money. They typically would not be eligible for payments, but should be under PUA rules.
For example, some workers received payments for unemployment in past years, only for Iowa Workforce Development to later determine that they didn’t actually qualify for benefits. The state orders the workers to pay the funds back. If they don’t, the state withholds unemployment payments the next time the workers file, even if they qualify.
But as part of a coronavirus stimulus package in the spring, Hirschman said the federal government determined that those workers who owe money can still receive payments through the PUA. But, she added, Iowa Workforce Development has not written this adjustment into the computer code.
Iowa Workforce Development did not respond to emails asking how many PUA recipients are still awaiting payments. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 12,000 Iowans were on the PUA rolls as of Oct. 17.
Workers still waiting for benefits is “completely unacceptable,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. As bad as the situation seems, Evermore said workers in some states don’t even know whether they qualify for PUA yet.
“I’m surprised people are getting through the appeals process (in Iowa),” she said. “In almost every state, the systems are behind. The backlogs are unbelievable. … I hate to say that (Iowa is) performing better than a lot of states. But that’s performing better than a lot of states.”
‘That makes me want to cry’
In Hansen’s case, she is being underpaid because the state is not considering her full wages from when she was working.
A former accountant at the restoration company SERVPRO, Hansen said her boss fired her after she requested paid leave in April. When the schools closed because of the pandemic, Hansen said working from home proved impossible as she needed to look after her 10- and 13-year-old children. (A SERVPRO general manager denied firing Hansen for this reason in an email to the Register.)
After her former company objected to her state unemployment claim, Hansen said an Iowa Workforce Development staffer agreed in early August that she didn’t technically qualify for standard benefits. That’s because she was not available for work – a requirement to normally receive payment.
However, because her children were out of school and Hansen has a health condition making coronavirus particularly dangerous, Iowa Workforce Development determined that she was eligible for benefits under PUA. The new federal program is open to a range of workers who don’t typically qualify for unemployment: independent contractors, freelancers, part-time workers, self-employed workers, those who need to care for family and those with medical conditions that make them high-risk for the virus.
The state also determines a worker’s weekly unemployment payment based on a formula that considers how much the person used to earn and how many children they care for. But because so many PUA recipients don’t receive traditional payment from a single employer, determining the proper amount is more difficult. In many cases, Iowa Workforce Development simply pays the recipient the minimum weekly benefit.
But Hansen had proof of how much she previously earned, through tax documents she already gave Iowa Workforce Development when she applied for standard unemployment. However, an agency representative told Hansen on Sept. 21 that she could not receive as much money because some of her past employment was in Nebraska, according to an email that Hansen shared with the Register.
“We do not use out-of-state wages when determining that,” an unidentified employee wrote.
Evermore, the National Employment Law Project policy analyst, said the agency is supposed to factor wages from other states to determine a worker’s benefit. Hansen said customer service employees later confirmed that they couldn’t pay her accurately because of a computer coding failure.
After Hansen emailed Townsend, the director responded in an email on Oct. 29, “We are not in a position to make these types of corrections to individual accounts. We are working diligently to be able to do so.”
Hansen sent Townsend another message, but Townsend referred her back to customer service.
“I haven’t been able to pay anything, except my smaller bills,” Hansen said. “I am behind on everything. … I don’t know if I’m going to get my phone shut off. My water, too.”
Stephanie Hurley, 41, of Davenport, Iowa, said she is admittedly in a better position than others. Her husband, an engineer, has continued to work through the pandemic, helping the family pay their bills.
Still, the application process has frustrated her. A self-employed travel agent, Hurley applied for PUA on April 26. Three months later, an Iowa Workforce Development representative determined that Hurley was ineligible for benefits, even though PUA is designed to cover self-employed workers.
Hurley appealed to an administrative law judge, who ruled on Sept. 24 that she was, in fact, eligible. But Hurley told the Register on Monday she still has not received any unemployment payments – 6½ months after applying.
“I physically don’t know what else I can do right now,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”
Hurley said her family has cut back on minor expenses like eating out and trips to the coffee shop. They have used some of their savings. At some point, if the funds don’t arrive, Hurley said she and her husband may have to pull their children out of dance and theater lessons.
A former information technology worker, she was shocked to learn this week that Iowa Workforce Development operates on a 48-year-old computer system.
“There’s no way they can fix it then,” she said. “Oh my God. Oh my God. I’m never going to get my money. That makes me want to cry.”
Kit Speirs, 52, a Davenport social worker, said she is in a more desperate situation. Speirs has lupus, and her husband has a heart condition, making them both vulnerable to COVID-19.
To protect herself, she stopped seeing clients in early April. Though she did not receive money for two months, the state eventually began paying her in early July through a federal program called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.
When benefits under that program expired, the state granted her application to receive PUA on Sept. 27. Six weeks later, she still has not received money. Speirs said a customer service supervisor left her a voicemail explaining that a technical glitch is holding up her payments.
Speirs said an Iowa Workforce Development employee initially wrote in the computer system that she was ineligible for PUA. For a reason unexplained to her, the state cannot “switch” the decision on the computer.
Speirs has begun seeing clients again, worried she won’t be able to pay her $1,200 monthly rent.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s not the best thing. I didn’t consult the doctor when I went back to work. I just did. What other choice do I have? I don’t want to be evicted, and I have bills to pay.”
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Some Iowans wait months for unemployment payments; state employees blame a 48-year-old computer system for benefit delays