Business

Iowans still waiting for unemployment benefits 'barely making ends meet'

State agency to implement federal programs next week

Lorie Coon gives a bottle of juice to her mother Sharon Smith at their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 12, 2
Lorie Coon gives a bottle of juice to her mother Sharon Smith at their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. The two are among the people who have been going without unemployment payments since December. The delays in receiving their payments are caused by Iowa Workforce Development’s delay in making the necessary “programming changes” after the new stimulus bill was passed in December. Others not receiving their payments are a result of IWD giving incorrect data to a new financial institution when transferring debit card providers. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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For the past six weeks, Lisa Harbit has been trying to figure out how to make ends meet without any income.

“You’re trying to make arrangements with your utility companies, your mortgage company, your car company, your insurance,” the North Liberty resident said. “Most places were willing to make arrangements with you for three or four weeks.”

She’s supposed to be receiving federal pandemic unemployment benefits, but she’s been waiting for her latest check for more than a month.

Many people across Iowa have been facing similarly difficult decisions as they go several weeks with no income and few answers from Iowa Workforce Development, the state agency tasked with overseeing unemployment insurance.

“We’re in so much debt right now,” said Lorie Coon, a Cedar Rapids resident who has not received benefits since December. “We’re barely making ends meet.”

Some Iowans such as Coon haven’t received payments because IWD was working on “programming changes” before it could implement the extensions to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment compensation that were signed Dec. 27 as part of the federal stimulus bill.

IWD said most PUA recipients still received payments without interruption, though.

IWD will implement the PUA and PEUC extensions Tuesday, Feb. 16, and Wednesday, Feb. 17, according to a Thursday news release. The agency expects claimants to receive payments five to seven business days later — a range spanning between Feb. 23 and Feb. 26.

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“We’re still a little frustrated because it shouldn’t have been drawn out this far,” Coon said. “Hopefully it’ll be faster than the five to seven business days.”

Coon said she believes there’s a chance it could be longer considering IWD doesn’t have “a real good track record” during coronavirus.

Iowa is one of five states still in the “pre-implementation” stage of federal benefits, according to the online tracker unemploymentpua.com, along with South Dakota, Arkansas, Wyoming and Alaska. Only three states and Washington, D.C. still are in the next “implementing” stage. All other states are in the “processing” or “paying” stages.

Others, such as J.R. Ockenfels from Ottumwa, haven’t received payments because of IWD’s transition in debit card providers, from Bank of America to U.S. Bank, last month. When IWD gave the Minneapolis-based bank incorrect data, many Iowans did not receive a new debit card where their unemployment payments have been accumulating.

Ockenfels eventually received his card Feb. 5, but he had some difficult decisions before then.

“Do I buy my kid’s basketball pictures or do I put gas in the van?” Ockenfels said.

It’s unclear exactly how many Iowans have gone without payments.

Before the Thursday news release, many unemployed Iowans had no idea when payments would begin.

“You get the same excuse every time you talk to them,” Coon said. “You get the same song and dance, no matter who you talk to up there.”

It’s been difficult for others to even talk to someone from IWD while dealing with the automated answering system.

“It loops around in circles,” Ockenfels said before his debit card arrived. “You cannot get to a real person.”

Ockenfels tried emailing IWD, but he believes that was an automated message as well.

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Harbit, of North Liberty, said she sometimes has been on hold with IWD for 80-plus minutes, only then to hear “no new information.”

Nina Seay of Davenport has been receiving PUA benefits, but her husband has not been receiving benefits. He is supposed to receive almost twice as much as she does, and the absence of those benefits creates quite the hole in their budget. She strategically calls every other day, when IWD opens at 8 a.m.

“I usually get right through and get somebody that’s very nice but does not have any information,” Seay said. “You want somebody nice, but you also want somebody to have information.”

The state agency still has not given any timeline on when debit cards would be reissued. But the Thursday news release said cards for 80 percent of affected unemployment recipients either have been mailed to the claimants or are in production.

As Ockenfels waited for his debit card, he found more information through U.S. Bank than through IWD.

IWD officials declined to comment, instead referring The Gazette to its website.

In the meantime, expenses keep coming, even if unemployment checks haven’t been.

Sharon Smith, Coon’s mother, has plenty of medical appointments coming up.

“Her insurance requires a co-pay, and we’re scraping to get the money together,” Coon said.

“We’re kind of going day by day and seeing where things end up.”

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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