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Missouri Struggles To Keep Up With Unemployment Applications

Missouri Job Center at Northwest Plaza in St. Louis County
File photo / Julia O'Donoghue
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri job centers around the state are closed for the foreseeable future due to coronavirus, but Missouri is still seeing a surge in questions about unemployment benefits over the phone and online.

Missouri is not yet able to process unemployment claims from independent contractors and people who are self-employed, even though the federal government has temporarily extended benefits to those workers during the coronavirus outbreak.

The state’s computer system for processing unemployment claims isn’t set up to take in applications from people who don’t have a direct employer, said Anna Hui, secretary of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

As such, people who are contractors or otherwise self-employed might be denied benefits prematurely if they apply before the computer system is upgraded. People who newly qualify for these benefits will also have to provide additional documentation, including proof of earnings, to get approved, according to the department. 

The agency did not provide a timeline on Friday about when its computer system might be able to process claims from the new group of workers that now qualify for unemployment benefits.

It’s important that people who are initially denied employment benefits “not give up” on receiving some compensation, said Daniel Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. The new rules came out just this week, and it will take a while for people to work out who qualifies for benefits and for how long, he said.

“Don’t try once, get voided and say, ‘Well, I guess I don’t qualify,’ or, ‘I guess it’s not going to work for me,’’ Glazier said.

The expansion of the pool of unemployment applicants isn’t the only major change coming to those benefits this week. Every person who receives unemployment will also get an additional $600 per week from the federal government. 

Those payments will apply retroactively to unemployment claims from as far back as the week of March 29. They will start to be paid out April 12, Hui said. There is typically a two- to three-week lag time between applying for unemployment benefits and receiving the money, Hui said. 

In addition to the significant changes in benefits, the state labor department is also overwhelmed by the general surge in applications and questions about benefits since the coronavirus outbreak started, according to the labor secretary. 

The state received over 91,000 claims for unemployment during the week that ended April 4 and over 104,000 claims for the week that ended March 29. By comparison, Missouri received 2,700 unemployment applications during the last week of February.

The agency’s staff is receiving more than 100,000 phone calls and emails per day, Hui said. The state is attempting to deal with the demand by transferring workers from other agencies into the labor department temporarily, but those people still have to be trained, according to Hui. The agency is also using automated voice recordings to answer some questions over the phone, she said.

Hui urged the public to be patient and she said it might take the department a few days to return individual calls or emails because of the overwhelming demand. She also asked people to check the labor department’s website for information before contacting the state office directly with questions.

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which generally helps low-income people in court, is planning to offer assistance to people who want help filling out the unemployment applications. It will roll out this new program in a few weeks after training staff, Glazier said.

“The law has changed. We look at changes in the law and help people navigate that. That’s what we’ve always done,” Glazier said.

Follow Julie on Twitter:@jsodonoghue

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