NH Department of Employment Security scrambles to keep up with unprecedented number of claims

With expanded eligibility and growing demand, agency streamlines and adapts filing process

If your business was forced to shut down and you attempt to apply for benefits under New Hampshire’s new coronavirus eligibility rules, you will be denied. But don’t worry about it. Ignore it. It doesn’t mean anything.

If all goes according to plan, you will also be sent a PDF form from the state Department of Employment Security that will tell how to report your income so the agency can manually enter that information into the computer system. You should get your first check in about a dozen days after you file, said DES Deputy Commissioner Richard Lavers.

It is not clear how many self-employed people, who are now eligible for the first time to collect unemployment, have filed for benefits so far. DES has been too busy trying to get the money out the door amidst the deluges of claims, to have time to count them.

In the week of March 14-21, there were 28,000 new claims filed, Lavers told NH Business Review, 6,000 more than the number reported by the federal government. The 28,000 new claims was seven times greater than the worst week for claims during the Great Recession

Because of a federal embargo, Lavers couldn’t release the March 28 week’s claims data until Thursday, but he said the number of claims during the period was also unprecedented. It is known that nearly 50,000 people registered for claims during from March 14 to March 28.

But on Saturday, the department stopped registering claimants. In less hectic times, Lavers said, the registration process allowed the department to share information with other department offerings, like job training. But the onslaught of new claims often slowed the computer system, so starting this week, the registration step will be skipped.

A new process

Part of the reason behind the sudden increase in demand –

aside from the near economic collapse caused by the pandemic – has been expanded eligibility.

Unemployment used to be limited to wage workers. But as the pandemic became reality, New Hampshire, and then the federal government, expanded it for self-employed and other groups.

Although the department uses the word “self-employed,” the new category encompasses all business owners, even those with many employees, who had to shut down their companies because of the crisis. Lavers said the department doesn’t know exactly how many of these new claims are being filed by the owners of companies. It can capture that information, “but our first priority is to process these claims so we can send out benefits as quickly as possible.” The reason that self-employed people are initially denied benefits by the agency is that the system is simply not set up yet to accommodate them.

“We had to create a new process, since there is no good way of processing this in the existing system,” he said.

To do so, the department had to devote a portion – the department would not say how many – of its 265 employees solely to processing self-employed claims. The department is trying to streamline the process, so that claimants can enter this information directly into the system, but Lavers said he wasn’t sure when that would happen.

The good news is that, starting this week, all beneficiaries will get an extra $600 from the federal government, thanks to the recently signed CARES Act.

In addition, the state has increased its minimum benefit from $32 to $168, and extended the duration of benefits from 26 to 39 weeks.

The extra $600 will be paid out by the federal government as part its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and not through the state’s unemployment trust fund. That’s important to employers who are still operating, since how much they pay in unemployment taxes depends on the size of that fund.

It is unclear whether the federal government will pay for more traditional claims filed by workers of businesses that went under because of the pandemic. Nor it is clear if the feds will pick up the tab for several new categories of eligibility added by the governor’s order of March 17, including paid student interns, farmworkers and domestic servants.

“We are pushing on that, but we are awaiting guidance,” said Lavers.

Perhaps the most complicated category is those workers who had to leave their job to take care of children or a loved one or because they themselves were required to self-quarantine.

For the last few weeks, they were eligible for unemployment benefits, but the federal government will begin requiring businesses, starting April 2, to provide paid medical and family leave, promising to reimburse business that do so via a credit on their federal payroll taxes. Anyone receiving such benefits though work won’t be able to double dip and collect them via unemployment.

“We’ll ask questions on what you are receiving or what do you expect receive,” said Lavers.

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