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Long lines at unemployment offices as web page, phone lines jam

State adds phone lines, operators, urges filers’ patience by Doug Thompson | April 1, 2020 at 4:14 a.m.
A line of around fifty people extends from the door of Arkansas Workforce Center Monday in Fayetteville. For information about small business loans and applying for Arkansas, unemployment benefits go to www.arkansasedc.com/covid19. For daily photo galleries visit nwaonline.com/200320Daily/. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T.WAMPLER)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Unprecedented demand has led to frustration as Arkansans line up outside at the doors of the state's workforce centers, where unemployment claims are filed, despite warnings to avoid crowds during the covid-19 pandemic.

At least 50 people stood Monday outside the center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fayetteville. Some said they did so after repeated attempts failed to get through online or by telephone.

Filing for unemployment

The online claims filing system is the fastest, most convenient way to file: https://www.ezarc.adws.arkansas.gov/

Applications by telephone: 1-844-908-2178 from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Applicants with a printer can deliver to any workforce center: www.dws.arkansas.gov/src/files/PDF501_BLANK_v022020.pdf

Applicants without a printer: Pick up a form at any workforce center and hand deliver. This is not recommended during the outbreak.

If all else is unavailable: Applicant may mail it to his local workforce center. This practice is discouraged because confidentiality and its receipt cannot be guaranteed.

A complete list of workforce centers and their addresses is available at: https://governor.arkansas.gov/images/uploads/Local_Office_Spreadsheet_DWS_2020_03_176.pdf

"You have to feed your kids," said Chasitie Vanderoof of Fayetteville, one of those in line at midday Monday. "When you have to pay your bills and feed your kids, you do what you have to do."

State officials acknowledge the problem, saying Monday that they have added more telephone lines and operators to the hot line used to apply for benefits by telephone. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in Monday's daily briefing on the outbreak that at least 20 more operators were manning phone lines for unemployment claims.

Mike Preston, state secretary of commerce, said Saturday that he doesn't expect the pace of new applications to lessen soon.

"Be patient with us. You will get processed," he said. "It is back-dated to the day when there was a separation from your employer, so, if you're nervous about that, if you don't get through the first couple of times, we will back-date that."

Full-time employees who aren't working because of the virus will receive unemployment benefits through the regular process, officials with the state Division of Work Services said.

Arkansas law also allows jobless claims by part-time employees, they added.

Workers not traditionally covered, such as those who are self-employed, can receive benefits under federal relief legislation passed last week, but they can't file until Arkansas officials get guidance from the U.S. government, state officials said.

'NOTHING LIKE THIS'

James Davison of Fayetteville said he suffers from lung ailments and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD. He waited in his car Monday for the line to get shorter, hoping everyone else would get done before he had to risk going in.

Davison, whose job in normal times is driving a dump truck, said he filed for unemployment more than a week ago but cannot check the status of his claim either online or by phone.

"I was able to walk right in when I filed," he said. "It was nothing like this."

More than 30,000 unemployment claims were filed in Arkansas last week, a record level in state history, the governor announced and Preston confirmed. Fewer than 1,400 claims were taken the week before, state figures show.

On Monday the line stretched from the door of the unemployment office past the end of the strip mall where it's located and out into the parking lot. The line appeared to stretch for about 220 feet. People stood single file and avoided crowding or forming clusters. Even family members in the line left spaces of an arm's length or more between them.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The same line would have stretched another 80 feet if social-distancing guidelines recommended by disease experts were followed.

Schools, salons, gyms, even tattoo parlors are closed. Restaurants are forbidden from serving dine-in customers, and gatherings of more than 10 people are discouraged under emergency measures imposed by Hutchinson to fight the spread of the coronavirus, which is highly contagious with no known vaccine or recommended cure.

PERSEVERANCE

Davison and others in line said they were told to contact the state Division of Workforce Services after filing their applications to answer any questions that the agency might have, but they were not able to get through by phone or online.

They're worried that their applications will be dropped or delayed, if they aren't there to answer questions, they said.

State officials said in an email Tuesday that if additional information is needed to finalize a claim, it won't change the amount or effective date for receiving benefits. Hutchinson also has waived the one-week waiting period for benefits to start.

One tip was offered: People applying by telephone who are put on hold will hear music, which stops after 30 minutes. If the music stops, they should stay on the line. The call has not been dropped, the statement says.

The online application site is accessible every day, with Saturday and Sunday applications processed from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to an earlier division statement. People who cannot get through after repeated attempts should persist, the statement says.

People can confirm that their claims are getting through by providing their email addresses, which are requested when they file their applications.

"Once a claim is finalized, an email is generated notifying the individual of the steps they need to take with regard to filing their weekly claims," the agency said.

Workforce Services also mails a notice of monetary determination to the applicant officially notifying him of his weekly benefit amount, as well as the maximum amount of benefits payable on the claim, according to the statement.

The current maximum for unemployment benefits in Arkansas is $451 a week for four months, according to a fact sheet produced by the division. The smallest amount of benefits allowed is $81 a week. The amount of benefits per week is determined for each applicant based on wages for the first four months of the previous five months.

PART TIME, SELF-EMPLOYED

Arkansas law has always allowed people who work less than 40 hours a week to file unemployment insurance claims and receive benefits based on a reduction in hours or for part-time employment, according to the agency.

People who claim benefits based on reduced hours or part-time work must report all hours worked and wages earned for those hours. Those who have had their hours reduced to none, or are furloughed, will receive their full weekly benefit amount if they are found eligible.

It's not necessary for a worker to prove that an employer's business has closed temporarily or that he has been told by his employer to stay home until further notice.

"While it is sometimes helpful to provide a notification from one's employer regarding the separation, it is not necessary to do so," according to Tuesday's statement.

Once a claim is filed, the agency will send a notice to the listed employer to verify the information provided on the application, the statement said.

The federal relief legislation extends the same unemployment benefits to workers who were not covered before the law was passed last week. Those workers include the self-employed, freelancers and gig workers such as musicians.

The state is awaiting federal guidance on the programs to determine if there will be any impact on the processing time required for some of the new benefit options, Tuesday's statement says.

Workforce Services will issue more information about the assistance on its web page and social media posts "should such benefits become available."

Retired nurse Beth Allgood of Fayetteville stood in line Monday despite what she said were health issues making her a covid-19 high-risk prospect. She had waited two hours at the time of her interview with a reporter, but she added that the line was moving.

"It's not raining," Allgood said when asked why she was there in person. "I'm OK as far as having enough money right now, but I need to get this done."

She worked at a bakery until the outbreak and she was sent home, she said.

She decided to risk standing in line, she said, because she expects the situation to get worse.

Metro on 04/01/2020

Print Headline: Lines long to seek jobless benefits

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