On Friday evening, WorkForce West Virginia began accepting and processing claims for up to 45,000 West Virginians who, under the federal coronavirus relief package, now qualify for unemployment benefits.
Scott Adkins, acting commissioner of WorkForce West Virginia, said the system was to begin accepting applications for gig workers, contractors, the self-employed and others who qualify at 10 p.m. Friday at http://WorkForceWV.org.
Many people who now qualify for the benefits have been out of work for weeks as the response to COVID-19 has led to business shutdowns and widespread unemployment. Adkins said that, while he understands the frustration regarding the delay in benefits, this is the best the state could do with the unemployment system it has.
Adkins said the system is almost 40 years old and the mainframe runs on COBOL, an outdated computer programming language. He said the agency called retired computer programmers back to work in an attempt to understand the system and get it equipped to process the backlog of regular unemployment claims — which were cleared Wednesday — as well as accept the new, pandemic-associated ones.
West Virginia wasn’t alone in this. News outlets across the country have reported that other states also have struggled in the face of COVID-19 to rework their unemployment systems for the first time in decades.
Now, though, as the system is ready to run the new claims, Adkins said WorkForce prepared for the influx with more phone agents available to answer questions on the agency’s hotline.
Here are some things to know if you’re applying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA):
PUA is for people who would not qualify for regular unemployment benefits, such as gig workers, contractors and people who are self-employed but are unable or unavailable to work because of circumstances related to COVID-19.
There also are other qualifications, like if someone has been diagnosed with COVID-19, is taking care of children or is living with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
There are some professions that do not qualify for the extended benefits. Those who are able to work from home, as well as people who are new to the workforce but cannot find a job, might not qualify.
If you’re unsure if you’re eligible for the benefits, check Section 2102 of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act online.
What are the benefits?
Those who qualify should expect to receive up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits, as well as an extra $600 a week until the end of July. Congress could extend these benefits in the future.
How to apply for PUA
The application for PUA is more comprehensive than the one for traditional unemployment, Adkins said.
Those looking to file a claim should have basic information ready, such as their Social Security number and banking information, as well as documents that can detail what your past employment — whether as a contractor, gig worker or self-employed person — looks like. This can include, but is not limited to check stubs, bank statements or business licenses.
Applicants also should have paperwork on hand to prove previous income, such as billing statements, invoices and tax returns.
Those who are filing under different circumstances — like caring for children or sick relatives — also should have documentation of that claim, Adkins said, such as proof of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
“If you file ... and your employer protests, you’re going to have to provide documentation,” Adkins said. “Saying you’re sick or you’re staying home to take care of the kids won’t be good enough. You’ll need to prove it.”
If someone is found to file a claim under false pretenses, they may be prosecuted for fraud and face federal charges, Adkins said.
When can you get benefits?
After submitting the application, Adkins said, it could still take up to two weeks to receive benefits.
The better the application, he said, the quicker claims can be processed. Ensure you double check that all the information you submit is correct and current.
“We’re getting claims with Social Security numbers that don’t match up, the wrong banking information, things that may be technical errors but that we need to process by hand, and that takes longer,” Adkins said. “The quality of the application can help you out a lot there.”
If you don’t know something or are unsure of how to answer a question, it’s better to close the application and check the information than to submit it incorrectly, he said.
Once you’re approved, benefits will be retroactive, typically starting from the first Monday after your employment ended, Adkins said, meaning many people will have a large first disbursement.
There’s also a chance the system could be backed up again, now that thousands more will qualify — and apply — for claims, he said. It’s uncertain how this could affect benefit disbursements.
If your job returns, but you’re uncomfortable because of COVID, can you continue benefits?
No. The language in the coronavirus relief bill does not include “concerns about catching COVID-19” as a reason to say no to employment if it’s offered. This would be counted as “quitting,” Adkins said, and benefits would be forfeited.
Denied traditional unemployment, can you still apply for PUA?
Yes. Since the new applications go under a different system, Adkins said, anyone who has previously applied will have to apply again at 10 p.m. Friday for the PUA benefits. The application is a bit different, he said, but will be processed in the same way.
The best way to get answers
Adkins said more people will be managing WorkForce West Virginia’s call line, 1-800-252-JOBS, but if you’re looking for information specific to your claim, be sure to call during the day, as the unemployment system shuts down each night — meaning workers can’t access it — to process new claims.
For general information, Adkins said workers should be able to answer questions any time of the day.
What happens after benefits end?
If the new benefits aren’t extended by Congress, those who previously did not qualify for unemployment will revert back to being ineligible. Adkins said WorkForce already is planning for how to adjust to a post-COVID-19 workforce.
“The economy is different, and it’s going to change. Moving forward, the challenge will be to ... replace some of the jobs we’re going to lose — and we are going to lose jobs,” Adkins said. “People are going to have to retool their skills, and we want to help. There are going to be trainings, lots of training, however we can offer them.”