Your questions about unemployment insurance, answered

Image from Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development

This is part of our ongoing Q&A series

Like the rest of the country, Alaska has had record levels of unemployment claims over the past few months. To put it in perspective, during the first eight weeks of the pandemic, more than 95,000 people filed new claims for unemployment insurance. Back in 2019, the number was about 8,000 for the same weeks. 

The state and federal governments have recognized that massive surge in claims and have been making major changes to the unemployment insurance system. Here, Alaska Public Media’s Lex Treinen answers some common questions about the program.

Will an early PFD cause people who are on unemployment insurance to lose those benefits?

Governor Dunleavy recently announced that the PFD will be paid on July 1. A piece of the unemployment benefit payments is also set to end in the end of July.

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There has been some concern from listeners that the powers-that-be were being sneaky by paying this PFD, which would ostensibly bump people above an income threshold and would keep the state from having to pay those unemployment benefits, but that concern is unfounded. It will not impact benefits.

Wait, how does the system actually work?

The unemployment insurance program is just that: insurance. Employers pay into it each year through federal taxes and that goes into a pool of money – a trust – run by the federal government but designated for each state.

That money can’t be used to pay for schools or bridges. It can only be used to pay unemployment insurance benefits when workers become unemployed. In extreme situations like this pandemic, the federal government pays a whole bunch of money to states to make sure the system can handle the influx of applicants. Here’s Patsy Westcott, director of the division of employment and training services with the Department of Labor: 

“For the federal program that were passed through the CARES Act, the money to pay for those benefits is fully federally funded. So there is no concern whatsoever about not having enough fun in our trust fund in which to pay benefits,” she said.

From a regulations standpoint, loss of income due to a loss of employment is determined by a very specific definition of employment income. When you get your bi-weekly wage, that is considered income. If you get paid a bonus, that counts as income. In some cases, tips are considered income. But Permanent Fund Dividends: those are not income. 

If my employer asks me to come back to work, but I’m uncomfortable with catching the coronavirus, can I decline the offer and still receive benefits?

A general discomfort with being at work because of fear of catching the coronavirus is not reason enough to decline a job offer, the DOL says. But each case is decided on a case-by-case basis and if there some reasons that might make it okay to decline a job offer, say, if you can’t get childcare during the workday, or if you are at especially high risk. 

The Department of Labor does investigate and punish fraud, so you could lose not only the money you received, but you’ll have to pay back an extra 50% of the money you received and also lost the chance at future benefits. Lying on an application is a crime. 

There have still been reports of people who have had trouble accessing benefits or getting through to representatives. What can those people do in order to make sure that they get the benefits?

The Department of Labor has acknowledged that there have been issues with processing claims, but they truthfully claim that this is a historic number of applications they have to deal with. Westcott says that the department has hired 160 temporary employees to process this surge in claims, and is continuing that work.

“We will continue to hire additional staff so that we can get to every person that needs our help and answer every call and answer every email,” she said.

She said folks need to keep trying and eventually, they’ll get a hold of someone. I did have a gentleman I was corresponding with show me a screenshot of his phone – he’d called the department over 50 times without getting an answer to his questions, but many more have been able to get through. 

There are a couple outside resources that might be able to help people who are struggling as well, including a Facebook group and AlaskaLawHelp.org. The good news is that as long as you’ve been applying for benefits, you can get back paid for the weeks you were unemployed. 

Send your questions about the pandemic in Alaska to coronavirus@alaskapublic.org or leave us a message at 907-586-1600