'Worst perfect storm' affecting thousands of unemployment claims

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BATON ROUGE - Monday, 2 On Your Side heard from the Secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission over long waits and lack of responses to unemployment claims. Sec. Ava Dejoie speaking today amid ongoing complaints about how long it's taking people to get help since they've been out of work due to COVID-19.

Over the last few months, 2 On Your Side has heard from hundreds of people who say they're waiting on an unemployment check or can't reach anyone at the unemployment office. Some people say that they haven't received benefits for months and their utilities are being shut off. LWC said Monday that their system is overloaded since it's paid out seven times the number of people in 2020 compared to 2019.

"We will never have enough representatives to answer the volume of phone calls," Dejoie said. "There are x-number of representatives that are answering the phones and x-number of lines and we only have so much capacity in those situations."

Dejoie says her team has worked around the clock to help people while combating fraud at the same time.

"This, with ill intent, is hurting those most in need," she said.

Through their investigations, LWC says most recently they came across a photoshopped image of someone holding a license up to their face. The license was fake and it was placed in such a way that it misshaped the person's hand in the image. A human has to process those photos and approve each one connected to a claim for a person to receive their benefits. The state is processing thousands of new claims each week.

"We're working through them as quickly as we can and we'll continue to do so," Dejoie said.

In addition to combating fraud, Dejoie says different types of unemployment benefits last for specific lengths and it all plays a part in what's happening behind the scenes.

"All of those things are the worst perfect storm you can imagine," she said.

While benefits might be coming in slow to a lot of people, the U.S. Department of Labor recognizes the Louisiana Workforce Commission as the state with the best first-time payment rate in the nation. The data shows that Louisiana was the highest performing state for the federal fiscal year (Oct. 2019 - Sept. 2020). The state had the second-best performance for the calendar year 2020.

"I think it's a testament to the hard work that our team has done, but when there is one person that goes unpaid we still have work to do," Dejoie said.

One of those people is Nana Williams in Shreveport. She was receiving unemployment up until September and since then hasn't heard anything from LWC. She contacted 2 On Your Side on Friday, and her email was forwarded to LWC. Williams says the next day she heard from someone at LWC who helped her through her claim process.

"I haven't been able to get through to them for like four months - literally since I talked to anybody," Williams said.

To get a jump-start, Williams says she starts dialing the workforce number at 7:59 a.m. so she can be in line to speak with someone. Often, her call gets disconnected and her bills are piling up.

"Bills don't stop, that stuff doesn't stop," she said.

With the help of 2 On Your Side, Williams hopes that her claim is cleared soon.

LWC is currently paying benefits to about 180,000 people and says it will continue to work through identity issues while they fight fraud.

In a news release Monday afternoon, LWC announced that one of the federally funded benefits programs that started at the height of the pandemic is ending. About 5,200 people have unemployment claims in the Extended Benefits (EB) Program. The U.S. Department of Labor notified LWC that Louisiana's unemployment rate no longer meets the criteria to continue the EB program past Jan. 23.

Claimants who are currently filing for benefits through EB will be notified and transitioned to the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.