The Assembly Republican caucus is calling on the governor to use federal coronavirus aid funding to help those who are still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.
As of mid-June, the state had fallen behind in processing more than 500,000 claims. The current unemployment rate of 7.9 is down from its double-digit high in May, but still much higher than the year’s start of 1.74. More than 3.4 million claims were filed between mid-March and mid-June.
“Unemployment, by and large, remains the biggest thing that we hear in our offices,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke. “The governor needs to stand up and take some action and get these individuals the unemployment that they that they deserve, that they need and that they've been told that they can count on.”
Assembly Republicans say that federal CARES Act funding should be put toward direct payments or bridge loans claimants can use while the Department of Workforce Development adjudicates their claims.
If the claims were approved, the loans would become repayable. If a person’s claim was denied, the claimant could qualify for a forgivable loan. Steineke said that just because a person’s unemployment claim was denied “doesn't diminish the need of these people that are out of work.”
According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, the proposed $40 million loan program would provide four weeks of benefits to upwards of 30,000 people. The number would be less however, closer to 10,000, if the loans were larger and covered the federal pandemic supplement of $600 weekly that claimants would otherwise have received.
The state still has $280 million worth of CARES Act funding available, according to the LFB.
“How long are these 140,000 people supposed to wait? How long can people go without any income, without being able to pay their bills?” Steineke said.
Republicans have been critical of the state’s response to the inundation of unemployment claims since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman has not done enough to adapt the department’s resources to increased demand.
Frostman said the department has been struggling to find enough staff to support the rise in claims, and has been dealing with an antiquated computer system.
Steineke said the governor’s office has sole discretion over how the federal funds are used, and that the Legislature had floated some ideas for using the funds that the governor ignored.
“I'm hoping that [the governor’s office] will take this as the olive branch that we're extending to them as a way forward to help those 140,000 people start making their bills,” he said.