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FOX 8 Defenders: Navigating access to unemployment benefits

While the extension of federal weekly unemployment benefits is welcome news for many out of work individuals, many say they’ve struggled to navigate the state’s system to access benefits. But the state says it will soon implement a new system that could help in getting legitimate claims paid.
Louisiana Workforce Commission
Louisiana Workforce Commission(WAFB)
Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 7:55 PM CST
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Jefferson, LA (WVUE) - Ivan Calloway calls an Old Jefferson apartment his home, but he’s not sure for how much longer. “I haven’t paid rent since December. I owe December, January, February and now March. That’s four months,” he said.

Like so many, he lost his job last year and filed for unemployment benefits with the state in August.

Since then, the 58-year-old former shipping company package handler told us each week he’s checked in with the Louisiana Workforce Commission by phone or online, and he applies for at least three jobs, a requirement to receive benefits. He estimates he’s applied for more than 25 jobs over that time frame.

He’s received some benefits, but only from August up to November. Since then, he says his claim has been “in progress,” and for four months he hasn’t been able to get through to anyone to get an answer. After going through multiple prompts by phone, hoping to reach a representative, he hears “due to high call volume we cannot take your call at this time.. we apologize for any inconvenience and ask that you try your call again later.”

He’s heard that message more times than he can count, and he feels helpless. It’s the first time in 40 years he says he hasn’t had a job.

“It all goes back to a fraud surge that we had back in mid-November,” said Robert Wooley, Asst. Secretary for the Louisiana Office of Unemployment Insurance. He explained the state knew then that something was wrong when it received nearly 200,000 new claims in a two-week period. Compare that to last week for example, when the state received just over 6,500 new claims.

“We stopped everybody’s payment, and then we had to start going back and getting ID verification for everyone. That’s what has really clogged up our system since last November,” Wooley said. Federal law now requires the state to verify an individual’s identification, mostly with a driver’s license. Part of the problem Wooley explained is that not everyone has access to a computer, and there have been issues, in some cases, with the clarity of the bar code on the back of licenses.

“We’ve dedicated 150 employees throughout the agency that are hand-looking at all of those and they’re working nights, they’re working weekends because we want to get legitimate claimants paid, but we have an obligation to also keep down the fraud,” Wooley said.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Workforce Commission is working to get a new, automated system in place to eliminate those issues. Wooley says it could be ready to go any day now.

Since the new Covid relief bill has been signed into law, Wooley says programming changes on the state’s end are underway. That means when the current program extends beyond March 14th with the federal boost of $300 in weekly benefits, programmers hope it will be seamless, and the technical infrastructure will be in place.

Meantime, Ivan Calloway is desperate for a job. He says he’s a quick learner hoping he’ll find work sooner, rather than later. The FOX 8 Defenders have heard from so many people like Calloway.

Wooley also told us when the federal benefits expired in December, and the extension wasn’t signed into law until the next day, which meant a break in the programming system, which lead to glitches. Multiple claims were filed for some individuals. He doesn’t anticipate that this time since the latest bill extending benefits through September has already been signed into law.

If you’ve got a consumer issue, call the FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women or fill out our online complaint form.

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