Faced with a surge in unemployment claims, Iowa Workforce Development has moved nearly its entire workforce to the front lines.
“Basically, we’ve moved everybody in IWD into some form of pandemic response,” said Director Beth Townsend.
Field office staff, many now working from home, are answering phone calls and emails about the benefits Congress made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act.
“Pretty much everyone is working on claims processing and customer service,” Townsend said. That’s 632 paid full-time equivalent positions.
The department’s staff members are on mandatory overtime — two hours a day and four to eight hours on Saturday, Townsend said. Some information technology employees are working seven days a week.
“Nobody is working a 40-hour week and going home happy at 5 o’clock,” she said.
And yet Townsend sees no end in sight until the economy reopens and people start to return to work. What she does see is her department getting the processes in place to deal with the swell of claims, especially those coming from people previously ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Among them is Sharee Seagren of Solon.
One of the governor’s disaster orders closed salons. A cosmetologist for 22 years, the only hair Seagren has cut in the past three weeks has been her son’s.
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“It’s hard on all of us,” she said, referring to friends in the trade who are out of work because of the orders that closed a variety of other business, too. “We’re used to working, to being around people.”
Workers like Seagren, who rents a chair in a Coralville salon, make money only when they are cutting and styling hair. Restaurants, she noted, can do some business through drive-up and deliveries, “but we’re virtually making no money.”
She’s not alone. Legislators say they are hearing from hundreds, probably thousands, of self-employed people, independent contractors, gig workers and other Iowans who are out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the Iowa Workforce Development systems to process jobless claims isn’t set up to handle applications from people like them who don’t pay into the unemployment insurance system.
“I 100 percent understand that this is uncharted territory,” Seagren said. “But with technology, it seems it would be easy to change things.”
“No state had systems in place to pay those claims and no one was processing claims at the level they are now,” she said.
After applying for her CARES Act aid, Seagren received a green slip telling her the state doesn’t have the information needed to pay the claim.
“That was the most discouraging thing because it made us feel like we were doing something wrong,” she said.
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So she tried again, using a tutorial on the Iowa Workforce Development website “to make sure I did it absolutely correct.”
“I understand it’s frustrating,” Townsend said, explaining the green slip Seagren and others are receiving is automatically generated because the system doesn’t have access to the applicants’ wage records.
“It’s frustrating for us, too,” she said, “Because it is meaningless. ... It has nothing to do with a whether a claim is paid.”
Self-employed workers don’t have a wage history with the department because they don’t pay into the system. So they need to upload some form of proof of income. Their 2018 or 2019 income tax returns will work as well as 10-99 forms, Townsend said.
Iowa Workforce Development is beginning to pay out the $600 weekly CARES benefit this week, in addition to state relief. Claimants with a debit card should see a deposit Thursday and direct deposits will be made Friday, Townsend said. The next step is to pay retroactive CARES Act claims to March 29.
In the meantime, she’s asking Iowans to give the department workers some “grace” to get through the surge.
“I think Iowa is doing as well or better than others. Claims are being paid at faster rate than in some other states,” Townsend said. “We’re trying to reduce the anxiety for the people filing claims and depending on these benefits.”
For more information, visit www.iowaworkforcedevelopment.gov.
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