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Jobless claims spiral up and up, and millions still await first checks

30 million unemployment claims filed in last 6 weeks
30 million unemployment claims filed in last ... 02:35

It's been six weeks since recruiter Lynn Atwood of Lafayette, Indiana, was furloughed along with all her staffing company's employees. She's still waiting for her first unemployment check to arrive.

Atwood belongs to a Facebook group of more than 2,000 Hoosiers who've spent much of March and April expressing their frustrations with hold-ups in collecting unemployment benefits. She initially applied on March 20 and says she hasn't a clue when the money will come. Meanwhile, not too far from her Lafayette home, Simon Property Group plans to reopen the local mall this weekend

"They're reopening the malls here and we don't even have unemployment money to spend there," Atwood said. "It doesn't make sense."

Atwood lives in one of five states with the worst backlogs of unemployment claims, according to a Century Foundation analysis. Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota and South Carolina each had about 98% of its new unemployment applicants from March still waiting for money when the month ended, the analysis found. 

Another 3.8 million Americans officially joined Atwood in the unemployment line last week, for a total of 30 million people who've lost their jobs since March. And that 30 million unemployed total could actually be even higher, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The center-left think tank reports that up to 12 million people were unable to file a claim on their state's unemployment system between mid-March and mid-April. 

Some states' unemployment website are run by outdated technology that's unable to process the unprecedented flood of applicants. In New Jersey, where 858,000 have filed for unemployment since mid-March, Governor Phil Murphy said he needs volunteers who know COBOL, a 40-year-old computer programming language that still powers the state's unemployment system. 

Another 3.8 million file for unemployment 08:38

Florida, which saw half a million unemployment claims last week alone, is another case. "[Florida's] unemployment insurance website has been particularly riddled with problems, and at one point, they recommended individuals file paper claims," researchers Andrew Stettner and Amanda Novello wrote in their Century Foundation analysis. 

The state's online application crashed soon after Floridians began filing for unemployment en masse. Many residents were also incorrectly deemed ineligible for benefits. State officials are now telling residents who were improperly rejected to reapply. 

Johani Ponce, a freelance writer and single mother in Miami, said the state rejected her application and told her she must submit her birth certificate, Social Security card and naturalization documents because she was born overseas, in Venezuela. It took Ponce, 47, some time to gather those documents, she said, but she reapplied April 5. 

"Having to do this process again feels like a waste of time," said Ponce, still waiting 25 days later. "And at this moment, I don't know if they'll say yes or not."

Ponce said she first filed for unemployment March 27 and can't get an unemployment office staffer on the phone for an update on her application. It's frustrating, she said, because "you don't know anything; you have to watch the news or get the help of a lawyer. If you pay taxes, you want everything with the government to work and this just doesn't work."

The Century Foundation, which describes itself as a progressive think tank, looked at how many people in each state applied for unemployment in March and what percentage of those new applicants actually received benefits later that month. It normally takes two or three weeks to receive jobless benefits, but those out of work say being left in the dark for more than a month is frustrating.

Unemployment backlog hurting millions 07:25

"I know there are literally thousands of people in Indiana waiting," said Atwood, referring to her Facebook group as well as local news accounts of their plights. "We keep calling and doing our due diligence, but it seems to be a waiting game." 

EPI suggested states could speed up their unemployment process if staffers simply worked backwards: "At a minimum, states should presume everyone is eligible and immediately pay benefits, only verifying eligibility and reviewing claims after the unprecedented wave of claims slows down." 

Atwood said she isn't sure what's holding up her claim and hasn't been able to get answers, saying it takes hours for someone at the state's unemployment office help-line to answer the phone. 

"I'm trying to be positive and be patient, but my bills keep coming in," she said. "I have medicine I need to pick up, and I have to live."

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