With rent and other bills coming due for Alaskans, the state has still not distributed the maximum $1,800 federal boost to unemployment benefits that tens of thousands of residents have been counting on.
“We understand that many Alaskans are in a very difficult financial situation, and we are working to get payments out as soon as possible,” said Tamika Ledbetter, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, in a statement released early Friday afternoon.
The state continues to cite technology issues as the reason for the delay. The state is in the “final stages” of testing the payments, the statement said.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a press conference on Wednesday that the state is working urgently to get the payments out.
“Our hardware, software system to be able to distribute those checks, we’re having a problem with it,” he said. “It’s outdated, it’s outmoded, and in the manner that the feds want us to distribute the money, right now it’s not working with the system. So we’re looking at putting some patches in pretty quick.”
People who are out of work should reach out to the department’s reemployment services, Ledbetter said.
“Many are surprised to learn of the full range of employment and training services available,” she said.
Cathy Muñoz, deputy commissioner for the department, said on Oct. 12 that the payments, covering a six-week period, would begin last week.
But on Friday, it was still unknown when the money — representing up to six weeks of $300 extra payments — would arrive. The boost would come on top of the regular weekly unemployment payment, which averaged about $250 before the pandemic began.
Several beneficiaries awaiting the supplement have reached out to the Daily News in recent weeks, expressing frustration with the lack of payments needed for rent, food and other expenses, after the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread layoffs.
Close to 40,000 Alaskans have received weekly unemployment benefits in October, about 12% of the workforce, according to the state labor department.
Bob Allain, a heating systems installer from Palmer who has been laid off for seven months, said his $1,800 will be spent as soon as it arrives to catch up on recent months of unpaid heating, electric and other bills.
He said he’s buying and repairing old washers, dryers and other appliances he finds on Craigslist to make enough to pay for food and gas for his vehicle.
He needs a “roundabout date” to tell bill collectors when he can pay, he said, and the wait has been frustrating.
“In the age of instant everything, they take months and months,” he said. “They should have sat people down and handwritten the damn checks.”
Alex Meier, a private attorney in Atlanta focusing on pandemic assistance for Seyfarth Shaw, an international law firm that deals with labor and employment issues, said that as far as he knows, Alaska is the last of the 49 approved states to distribute the payments.
Meier said only South Dakota did not apply for the unique relief program.
The supplement, known as Lost Wages Assistance, was approved by President Donald Trump in August, using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA approved the grant for Alaska on Aug. 23, ahead of many other states, according to FEMA’s website.
The state labor department on Friday continued to describe the delayed payments as a problem involving information technology associated with the department’s existing computer systems and the requirement for a new payment system from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The statement from Alaska’s labor department provided some explanations for the challenges on Friday:
• The Lost Wages program is not part of the Unemployment Insurance program. The U.S. Department of Labor has required that Alaska not mingle the federal emergency money with funds from the state’s $323 million unemployment trust fund. An entirely new system must be built with separate accounting and financial reporting requirements. New coding is required.
• The current unemployment system is designed for funds to be disbursed only through that system. The state cannot pay people the extra money by using money from the unemployment insurance trust fund. If it tried, the money would not be reimbursed.
• The previous $600 weekly federal benefit that ended in late July was disbursed through the traditional unemployment insurance system.
This new payment, designed to help offset the loss of that $600 federal payment, will be made in one lump sum of up to $1,800, the statement said.
Approval for a six-week program in Alaska came in early September, Ledbetter said in the statement.
“At that time, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced that the program would be operational in six to eight weeks,” she said.
Heidi Drygas, an attorney who led the state labor department under former Gov. Bill Walker, said the unemployment insurance program is staffed with long-term employees who are committed to doing a good job.
But programming issues have been a problem in the past, and there would be challenges with standing up a new system for a service that’s heavily regulated by the federal government, she said.
The department erred when it said the money would go out last week but did not deliver, she said.
“It’s been a really long time since Alaskans saw the $600 benefit,” and they need to pay bills, she said.
The state labor department is getting increasing pressure to distribute the money.
State Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, said some Alaskans have contacted her, asking with increasing desperation when the payment will come through. Tarr has pressed the state for quick delivery of the money.
“One person said, ‘I hope the depression doesn’t get the best of me,’” Tarr said. “When I get emails like that, that rings alarm bells.”
Michael Patterson, 30, said he helped organized a caravan protest with the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Anchorage on Friday afternoon to highlight the need for the payments to get out.
The extra payment that didn’t come last week, as expected, was difficult for his family, he said.
“We are telling the state, keep your promise, do your job,” Patterson, 30, said of the rally.
Since the pandemic began, he lost work as a carpet cleaner, and his fiancee lost her job as a bartender. A U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, Patterson said his family, including three children, are scraping by on his veteran benefits and the small unemployment check his fiancee currently receives.
“We have no failsafe, no backup plan,” he said.
Drygas, the former labor commissioner, said the pandemic has highlighted how the state’s unemployment benefits are “painfully low,” inadequate for rent and other high costs in Alaska, she said.
The Legislature has increased the payments only on rare occasions over the past two decades, she said. The program needs a mechanism so payments rise with inflation, she said.
“If there is any tiny shred of silver lining to this pandemic, I think folks are beginning to recognize that Alaska’s UI benefits are significantly lagging behind and it needs to increase," Drygas said.
The state labor department said it works with multiple entities to provide employment and training information at 14 Alaska job centers statewide, and job seekers can call 877-724-2539 for more information.