Alaskans who expected a $300 boost to their unemployment checks starting this week to counter the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic have so far been disappointed.
The Anchorage Daily News this week heard from several unemployed Alaskans who had not yet received the money. Anchorage resident Jeana Johnson, who hasn’t worked since May because of the pandemic, said the wait is frustrating for her family of four. Her two kids will soon need supplies and clothing for upcoming in-person classes.
“Rent is coming up at the end of month, and we have bills due at the beginning of the month," she said.
Close to 40,000 people are receiving unemployment benefits from the state, or about 12% of the state’s workforce, after the pandemic led to government restrictions on businesses and reduced customer visits to restaurants and stores.
An increase in new unemployment claims in Alaska in recent weeks suggests the hardship may be widening.
Cathy Munoz, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said Thursday that the state is working to get the payments out and that they can now be made in a lump sum of up to $1,800 instead of individual payments distributed over six weeks, as she had previously announced.
Still, Munoz, who last week said the payments would begin this week, would not provide a specific day when the payments will be issued.
“Our IT team is working to get it done this week," she said in a emailed statement on Wednesday, referring to the agency’s information technology group.
On Thursday, Munoz said in an email that employees at the state’s Unemployment Insurance unit and Division of Finance, along with KeyBank, are "working very hard” to correctly launch the program.
“Yesterday and today, we have been running test payments,” she said in an email. “This is the final step needed before the program goes live."
This is to make sure "that there are no operational glitches, and that the system is running according to the parameters of the programming,” she said.
“As soon as the test runs are complete, and there are no identified glitches, payments will go out the next day,” Munoz said.
Isabel Soto, director of labor market policy with the American Action Forum, a conservative policy institute, said that Alaska appears to be the last of the approved states to distribute the extra money. The program is called Lost Wages Assistance.
New Jersey began making its $300 payments late this week, news accounts show.
Soto said that states experienced delays implementing the program in part because of the huge level of demand and in part because they had to create new distribution systems to account for new requirements that didn’t mesh with old systems.
Munoz said Friday that many states had begun making payments just last week, according to a news account.
“Alaska’s application was approved in early September, and at that time, we anticipated six to eight weeks,” Munoz said. “We are still within the anticipated time frame and will immediately distribute lump sum payments to eligible Alaskans as soon as testing is completed.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy in August approved the plan for the increase, using federal aid money, to replace the $600 boost from Congress that ended in July. The extra $300 comes atop the typical state payment, which was about $250 weekly on average, before the pandemic.
The money comes from a federal disaster relief fund for unemployment aid, after President Donald Trump in August signed an executive order that allowed states to use the money.
After waiting for more than two months for the program to launch, Anchorage resident Johnson had expected the extra payment on Thursday with the weekly unemployment check she’s collected since losing work.
But it wasn’t there.
“I was so irritated with it because you make a plan with your bills," she said.
Unfortunately, other people are in a worse bind, she said.
The state should have done a better job letting the public specifically know when recipients can expect the money, she said.
Munoz, with the state, said on Thursday the lump sum payments will be useful for Alaskans who have lost income.
“Just recently, after numerous meetings with our federal counterparts, we received the good news from the (U.S. Department of Labor) that we can issue lump sum payments,” she said. “Previously we were told that the payments could only be issued by the week. This latest development will be very helpful to many Alaskans especially as we approach fall and winter.”
Munoz said the agency is aware that many Alaskans are struggling.
“We are very sensitive to the difficult circumstances that many Alaskans are facing," she said. “Many of us have family members and close friends who are impacted directly with the economic devastation caused by COVID.”
The program will cost $62 million in federal money, Munoz has said.
The payments, for six weeks, will be made retroactively to when the $600 boost ended in July, she said.
“The eligibility period is the week ending Aug. 1 through the week ending Sept. 5," she said in an email on Thursday. “If an individual had at least $100 in weekly benefits during that period, they would be eligible for a retroactive payment of $300 for each week of eligibility. The maximum is six weeks or $1,800."