Motif previously reported (“Unemployment insurance runs out for hundreds in RI”, by Michael Bilow, Mar 1, 2021) that 213 beneficiaries had exhausted their available Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), but further information emerged on Wednesday, March 3, from the RI Department of Labor and Training (DLT), which administers the program, that many more were notified in error, setting off near panic for thousands.
The count of 213 was correct, DLT spokesman Margaux Fontaine confirmed to Motif, but many more apparently received a notice after completing their weekly re-certification on the DLT website that read, “Your certification has been successfully recorded.. However, you have exhausted your benefits balance. If you are still in need of assistance, you will need to file a new claim to have your eligibility determined.”
Adding to the panic, the DLT telephone help line, the only way for claimants to obtain information about their unemployment insurance status, has been overwhelmed to the point of inaccessibility, hanging up on callers and telling them to call back later.
Late on Tuesday, March 2, DLT sent an e-mail message explicitly countermanding their benefits exhaustion notice on the web (emphasis added): “This [e-mail] notice is to inform you that you have collected 46 weeks out of the 50 weeks available through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). This means that you currently have four (4) weeks of benefits left. Note: If you received a message on UI Online that said you exhausted your benefits, you can disregard it. For the next four weeks, you may continue certifying as usual on UI Online or over the phone beginning Sunday, March 7, 2021. You will receive this week’s payment by Wednesday. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a bill that would extend PUA benefits. If that bill passes, DLT will work to implement the additional weeks as quickly as possible. There is no need to contact the UI Call Center.”
“People should only disregard the [web] message if they specifically received that e-mail, which confirms that they are at 46 weeks,” Fontaine told Motif in response to an inquiry. “We sent the email out to all 2,740 people who were at 46 weeks as a precaution.”
Asked to explain what happened, Fontaine told Motif, “Claimants are notified a week ahead of any benefits exhausting when they certify. We will also keep claimants informed of what happens with the bill in Congress (depending on when/if the bill passes, this may [be] an email or a message on our website and social media). Rhode Island has consistently been one of the fastest states at implementing federal programming changes so we anticipate being able to add additional weeks quickly, should they pass. We are currently working on creating an online system that will give claimants a lot more insight into their claims. This is set to launch later this spring.”
PUA is a new program created to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic by the federal CARES Act that became law on March 27, 2020, extending unemployment insurance to those not previously eligible, primarily formerly self-employed, contract and gig workers. It is distinct from the regular unemployment insurance program, which was also separately extended by Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) that provided an additional 13 weeks for those who have otherwise exhausted unemployment benefits. Both are distinct from Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) that boosted weekly benefits by $600 until July 2020.