Please hold: Seeking Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Iowa

Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 6:43 PM CST
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Iowa (KWQC) - One of the biggest impacts that COVID-19 has had on our country is job loss. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance--a program that provides temporary income to people who have lost their jobs to the pandemic under the CARES Act of 2020-- was put into effect to help those who were laid off or forced into quarantine over the past year.

Offices across the country have been flooded with applications requesting state assistance as businesses continue to shut down. In Iowa, a total of 34,219 claimants received over 170 million dollars in benefits throughout 2020, according to Iowa Workforce Development.

Unemployment rates have been a roller coaster, from the highest being at 11 percent in April, to 3.1 percent in December, IWD data states. And although unemployment is currently down, some people are still struggling.

Davenport resident Kimberly Sloan moved to the Illinois side of the Quad Cities for grad school in 2019, and then moved back to Davenport in the beginning of 2020 where she worked at a bar in town.

Then the pandemic hit, and she was laid off, needing assistance from the state. Neither Iowa nor Illinois, however, were able to immediately accept her application.

“It was really frustrating being told I needed to apply in Illinois, only to be told I needed to apply in Iowa, only to be told I needed to apply in Illinois,” said Sloan.

According to Sloan, her taxes were not reported correctly to IWD and so it caused them to not see evidence of her work history. Since she didn’t live in Illinois anymore, the state wouldn’t take her application, either.

The headache got even worse, she says, when she couldn’t reach anyone.

“I called, I emailed, I kept getting the same response. That it was in review,” Sloan said.

She finally went to IWD in person, where she was able to meet with someone who was able to get her case reviewed and approved.

The process took from March to December 2020, almost a full year, to be able to get someone to listen.

Bill Johnson applied for Iowa’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on January 13, after he got COVID-19 and had to quarantine from work. Johnson says he was approved for $450 a week during the time he was out.

Yet over a month has gone by and Johnson says he still hasn’t received any payment despite filing for a second time and trying to reach out to IWD multiple times.

“I went online, filled out the form explained my situation,” said Johnson, “and still never got anything back.”

He says he tried reaching out on the phone but was asked to leave his name and callback number instead.

Visibly frustrated, Johnson expressed that he feels he has run out of options.

“My mortgage was due on the first and it still not paid,” said Johnson, “yesterday was the last day to pay it, so now I’m going to get hit with a penalty.”

Jennifer Cale of Davenport also says she feels she is hitting a dead end when it comes to reaching someone who o can help her with her case, saying “you have to re-tell the story from the beginning to every person that you talk to.”

Cale, a health care worker who has a heart condition and Type I Diabetes, was told by her doctor in the spring that she must quarantine due to her high risk status.

She applied for PUA at the time and says she received payment for two months before going back to work. Then she got a notice in the mail.

“Come December, I get a letter from Iowa Unemployment saying you didn’t qualify, you need to repay,” said Cale.

She says the state claimed she no longer qualified due to her voluntarily quarantining, but Cale says her doctor and boss said she had to stay home due to her being at high risk.

Cale says she has been trying to find someone to talk to ever since to help explain her case, but she can’t seem to get past the initial phases, stating “each time I get a hold of them to ask a question or voice a concern I had to restart the whole story over and over again.”

It is the same automated system that thousands of Iowans who have filed to receive PUA have faced. Anyone with questions about their payment is asked to call an 8-6-6 number, where there is a robot set up to answer questions.

TV6 tried calling the 8-6-6 number to find out exactly what people are dealing with. It took five minutes of automated messages and updates before they were put on hold to talk to a representative.

It then was another 20 minute wait before TV6 decided to hang up.

The machine does offer to give a call back, but according to Bill Johnson, that doesn’t always work.

“I gave them my name and number,” said Johnson, “and they never called me back.”

There seems to be an overall awareness from TV6 viewers that the people who are working at the unemployment office are currently overwhelmed with cases.

According to IWD, more than 180,000 hours of overtime have been put in since the start of the pandemic.

The consensus, however, is that the current system for helping applicants is not working and representatives need to be more available.

TV6 reached out to Iowa Workforce Development to comment regarding their communication. They responded via email, saying, in part:

“We know there have been times when it has been difficult to get through on customer service lines because of the crush of calls we have received at various times in the pandemic. We always recommend starting at the website since most questions can be answered there... We will continue to keep Iowans informed and up to date as new information becomes available. "

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