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Update: Gov. Little on Friday waived the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits and signed an executive order saying if person is quarantined at government direction, they will be considered to have met the requirements needed to apply for unemployment. Read the full story here. 

BOISE — The last few weeks have been a blur for Boise hairdresser Cara Starr Johnson. She began the process of filing for unemployment about a week ago, alongside more than 13,300 other Idahoans.

That number, provided by the Idaho Department of Labor, is a 1,200% increase from the week before — the largest such increase in the state’s history.

Amid a nationwide economic shutdown caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus, nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week — almost five times the previous record set in 1982 — the Associated Press reported.

Idaho workers filed 13,341 new claims for unemployment insurance benefits during the week of March 15-21. During the previous week, 1,031 workers filed unemployment claims. It was the largest one-week increase in the history of Idaho’s unemployment program, said Idaho Department of Labor’s Deputy Director of Communications Georgia Smith.

“Our priority is to get benefits out to those who are eligible as quickly as possible and help Idaho employers who are hiring find the staff they need as soon as possible,” said Department of Labor Director Jani Revier in a news release.

In January, the state reported a 2.8% unemployment rate, which was just 1/10th of a percent above the state’s all-time low of 2.7% set in September and October of 2018.

Starr Johnson said she wasn’t sure if she would receive anything in unemployment benefits. She said she hated the fact that the situation had come to this, but she saw it as one of her only options.

HOW TO FILE A CLAIM

Unemployment insurance provides temporary income to people who have been separated from employment through no fault of their own and who meet all eligibility requirements. To be eligible, you must have been laid off due to lack of work, voluntarily quit with good cause connected with employment, or were discharged but not for misconduct.

Unemployment insurance benefits are funded through a tax on employers, which is collected by the Idaho Department of Labor and placed in a federal trust fund. Money from that fund can be used for unemployment benefits and for no other purpose.

Idaho’s unemployment benefit ranges from $72 to $448 a week, and each individual’s benefit is calculated based on their past earnings.

Unemployment benefits may be available to people whose unemployment is attributable to the coronavirus. Benefits, including partial benefits, are available to people who have been laid off or furloughed as a result of the coronavirus.

“If they’ve been furloughed we would encourage them to call and apply, apply for unemployment insurance benefits,” Smith said. “We’re encouraging anybody who has lost their job to try and file online. If they have trouble, call and we will try and help them file online through the phone.

“If they are job-attached — if they’ve been laid off and their employer says, ‘I want you to come back in three weeks, six weeks, however many’ — they do qualify for benefits,” she said.

Workers whose hours have been reduced qualify for benefits as well.

“If they had their hours reduced they can still file for unemployment insurance, and they will indicate that they work, then they’ll enter their earnings every week,” said Leah Reeder, an unemployment insurance technical services specialist. “Depending on how much they earn it could reduce their unemployment insurance benefit.”

If you work less than full-time during a calendar week, you can collect unemployment benefits for that week as long as your gross earnings (including your benefit amount) are not equal to or greater than 1.5 times your weekly benefit amount. If you earn less than one-half of your weekly benefit amount, there will be no reduction in your unemployment insurance check. If you earn between one-half your weekly benefit amount and 1.5 times your weekly benefit amount, a dollar for dollar reduction will occur on your unemployment insurance benefit check.

For example, if you qualify for a $448 weekly benefit and earn $224 or less per week, you will qualify for the full benefit amount. Earnings above 50% the benefit amount are reduced dollar for dollar.

To file an unemployment claim, visit labor.idaho.gov/claimantportal. If you require assistance or do not have access to a computer, call the claims center: 208-332-8942.

EXPEDITING CLAIMS

Amid the surge of unemployment claims, the Department of Labor is hiring additional claim specialists, Smith said. And the department is asking employees with experience to help with handling claims, Reeder said.

“We have folks who have been claim specialists in the past who have moved on to other jobs in the department and many of them, who are able, have volunteered to come back and help the claims department temporarily,” Reeder said.

Some states, such as California and Texas, have waived regular requirements for unemployment insurance, including a one-week waiting period to receive benefits. Smith said Idaho has not taken any steps to streamline the process for benefits. Idaho unemployment claimants must complete a one-week waiting period at the start of their new claim. During this week they must have either been totally unemployed, or if they worked part-time, they must not have earned more than 1.5 times their weekly benefit amount.

Starr Johnson said she also encountered Idaho’s requirement that a person must look for work while they are receiving benefits. If a person does not have a definite return-to-work date within 16 weeks of their layoff or reduction in hours, they must look for work.

“I don’t know how we can do that right now,” Johnson said, noting Gov. Brad Little’s 21-day order that requires Idahoans to stay home unless they work for a business deemed essential or to complete essential tasks.

Starr Johnson said she had been trying to apply at grocery stores and other essential businesses.

At the Thursday press conference during which Little issued the order, he addressed Idaho’s waiting period and the requirement to be looking for work.

“Some of those I can waive, some of those we’re going to have to work with the federal government,” he said. “That is of paramount importance to us.”

Reeder said one way the department is expediting the claims process is by “taking more claims over the phone now” than it previously had.

PREPARING YOUR CLAIM

The Idaho Department of Labor is asking claimants to take a few preparatory steps before they apply. First, claimants should try to file their claim online because the Department of Labor’s phones will be overloaded with calls. Smith also recommend filing the claim online using a desktop computer rather than a smartphone.

“If they do need to call us, try and stay away from Monday, because Monday is a very heavy call volume day,” Smith said. “If they want to try and call outside the hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., that might also speed some things up.”

Callers can expect a 40- to 60-minute wait time if they call the office, Smith said.

Before applying, claimants should read a series of frequently asked questions that will provide useful information. Claimants also should have prepared their two-year job history, which is required to file a claim, and they should have their bank and routing information on-hand, if they want to receive their unemployment benefit via direct deposit.

The Idaho Press is offering free online access to all of our local coronavirus stories. Our ongoing coverage of the Treasure Valley relies on the generous support from our readers. To strengthen local journalism, please consider subscribing at iptoffers.com. For daily updates in your inbox, sign up for our COVID-19 newsletter.

 

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