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Idahoans struggle with slow unemployment benefits after crush of demand

Fast in the Morning Wild 101
COVID-19 Idaho

By Madeline White / Idaho News 6

Unemployment payouts for the week ending May 2 reached $14 million dollars, a 3.9% percent increase over the previous week. But there are still many Idahoans waiting for benefits.

Marla Asher from Emmett is one of those Idahoans, but she isn’t letting that stop her from finding temporary work in the interim.

“We all lost our jobs pretty much overnight,” Asher said.

She said she never thought she’d see the day where she was cleaning and disinfecting emergency rooms at a local hospital just to make a living.

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“It was right after a COVID patient was in there,” she said. “I put myself right up there, right up there, but I did it because it was money.”

This was one of the temp jobs she has taken recently after being laid off at her job at the Hilton in downtown Boise.

“When my supervisor called, ya know, ‘Marla, sorry,’ it was just like, ‘Okay I’m gonna file for unemployment, ya know, it’s alright,’ but no. No. It didn’t turn out that way,” she said.

Long wait for benefits

Asher said it’s now been two months since she filed for unemployment benefits, and still no changes on the pending status of her claim. Idaho Department of Labor representatives have been essentially unreachable.

[Boise says it intends to mostly follow state’s reopening plan. Yes, that includes salons]

“They do say you get back-pay, but I haven’t even seen a check so what, you know, what is that?”

The Department of Labor says they are dealing with unprecedented demand, and unlike the last recession, it came without warning so the system just wasn’t built to handle it.

In a five-week period they paid out nearly $60 million in benefits to laid-off workers.

Still, Asher and many others are still waiting. And she wonders if there isn’t something officials could be doing.

“I don’t think that they really sit back and think of the livelihood of what this does to people. I mean, we all lost our jobs pretty much overnight. And, did they have most of our backs? No,” said Asher.

[Gov. Little interview: Unemployment, evictions, events, small biz program and ‘reopening day’ visits]

Now, Asher is continuing temporary work to protect her bottom line, while she continues certifying her weeks of unemployment. She is also looking for a new full-time job; one of Idaho’s many staffing agencies has been helping her to access these new positions.

“Thank the Lord that temp agencies were essential businesses,” said Asher.

Speaking of essential businesses, that’s where she’s hoping her next career will be.

“I don’t want to be in the same position,” said Asher.

“This whole process has taught me a lot… that we have — we have come together through this. And it has humbled a lot of people. A lot of us have been humbled by it. And ya know, it’s a new change,” said Asher.

Unemployment Q&A

As we’ve previously reported, Asher is one of several Idahoans still waiting for benefits. Idaho News 6’s Madeline White has been following their experiences closely and has some updates:

Q: Are self-employed Idahoans seeing their benefits yet?

A: Because self-employed only recently became eligible for unemployment from the CARES Act, the implementation of that federal funding took a while, which is why they said “mid-May” as their estimate for benefits.

But now, we are seeing some mixed reports. One self-employed Idahoan is thrilled because she tells me her claimant portal says “a direct deposit of her benefits [will be] released” tomorrow and the next day.

Another self-employed Idahoan, Carissa Wright, a Boise hairstylist we previously introduced you to, says her claim appears to be “exhausted,” though she’s never gotten her money. So that’s something I’m looking into and will keep you updated on.

Q: Many Idaho businesses are reopening this weekend. Is there anything people should know who might be heading back to work?

A: Spokesperson with the Department of Labor Leah Reeder tells me it is very important that claimants stop filing weekly reports when they return to work full time — even if they will not be receiving a paycheck that week — and that claimants do not need to contact the department or withdraw their claim when they return to work full-time. 

Q: Can job-attached claimants lose their benefits if they do not return to work when their business reopens?

A: Reeder says, “Yes. Job-attached claimants could potentially lose their benefits if they do not return to work when the business opens… We would look at each situation on a case-by-case basis… We would obtain details from the individual to find out whether this is good cause. What is the claimant’s reasoning for refusing work? Is this based on concern or fact (for example, do others in the workplace have COVID-19)? What does the employer have in place to keep them safe? These questions and more must be asked to determine if the claimant has good cause for refusing work.”

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