Senate talks jobless benefit claim concerns

By SPECIAL TO THE PRESS REGISTER,

The Department of Employment Security has enough money in the immediate future to pay benefits owed to citizens across the State and pay for additional staff to handle claims, Executive Director Jackie Turner reported to the Senate Economic and Workforce Development Committee on Thursday.

As the Legislature reconvened to address federal CARES Act appropriations, the Committee, led by Chairman David Parker and Vice Chairman Jeremy England, held a hearing at the Mississippi Capitol centered on unemployment benefits.

The receipt of timely benefits and other problems, including phone line blockages and an overwhelmed system, have caused serious concern among legislators trying to help constituents who have been laid off and furloughed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is the issue I hear about from citizens most. We need to be proactive and consider whether there are any changes we need to make, even on a limited basis, to move through claims more quickly,” Chairman Parker said. “The department has indicated they are concerned about these issues too and said we can expect to see movement on resolutions this week.”

Turner reported the department has added hundreds of additional people to answer benefits calls over the last two months.  She said the department would unveil seven new solutions to streamline the claims process, which she would share with the Committee next week.

“We appreciate the department’s hard work during unprecedented times. No one could have predicted this kind of situation,” Vice Chairman England said. “Many citizens have never navigated the unemployment system, so some of this is about clear information and then follow through on the government’s side on the process.  The department must focus on communicating with applicants and concluding investigations sooner. I was glad to hear the Executive Director agree to look into these concerns, and I think we made clear the Legislature is willing to help the department whenever needed.”

Turner said prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the trust fund for State unemployment benefits was worth about $710 million.  The current balance is $630 million.  This is separate from federal funds set aside for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which are paid out through money allocated by the federal CARES Act, and other administrative expenses, which have been allocated by other federal relief legislation.

“We have received many calls and e-mails from constituents who are destitute because of this pandemic, with no income and bills piling up,” Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann said. “We want them to know we know they are struggling and we are searching for solutions—both for now and in the future.”