Suspended interviews left some Iowans without unemployment money for over a month

By: - June 3, 2020 1:59 pm

Iowa is expected to receive about $1.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan. (Photo by Scalinger/iStock Getty Images)

For the last seven weeks, Abigail Sui has struggled to find out the status of her client’s unemployment claim.

Sui works at EMBARC, a non-profit organization that supports refugees. She has been assisting a single father who filed for unemployment. Weeks passed and Sui said both she and her client were unsure why his benefits weren’t coming in.

Following several phone calls, a month after filing his claim, they finally learned his employer contested the claim, requiring him to undergo a fact-finding interview with Iowa Workforce Development to determine whether he can claim benefits or not.

Claimants will receive a letter in the mail specifying a scheduled date and time for the interview, according to the Iowa Workforce Development site.

Sui’s client filed his claim in April. As of June 3, Sui said he still has not received a letter.

“I don’t know why it takes six weeks, seven weeks, just to find out the date,” Sui said. “He has no income.”

Fact-finding interviews are scheduled by Iowa Workforce Development if an employer disputes an unemployment claim filed by an employee within 10 days, according to the department’s website. During the interview, the employer and employee have opportunities to make their cases. A decision is later mailed to both parties, letting them know about unemployment payments.

However, Iowa Workforce Development suspended fact-finding interviews for the first six weeks of the pandemic because they shifted staff to address the record increase in unemployment claims and customer service calls and emails, said director Beth Townsend in an email. Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster March 17.

In the first week of May, the department started scheduling interviews again, prioritizing the oldest claims first, Townsend said.

Before COVID-19, claimants typically received a letter scheduling a fact-finding interview within a week of filing their claims. Interviews would be scheduled within the next two weeks.

Up to 95 employees are conducting fact-finding interviews every day now and the department is scheduling additional interviews in an effort to catch up, Townsend said. Since the beginning of May, Townsend said Iowa Workforce Development has conducted 11,476 fact-finding interviews and 4,500 more are scheduled, according to her email.

Sui said her clients are still waiting for their letters. Beyond the father she is working with, three other clients have also waited at least five weeks for a letter in the mail scheduling an interview and they have not received benefits, Sui said.

When asked if people who are waiting for an interview receive unemployment benefits in the meantime, Townsend said, “every case is different.”

The frustrations and unknowns have left some people in the refugee community giving up entirely on their unemployment claims, Sui said.

Even if people are ultimately denied, Sui said it’s better for them to know, rather than wait in limbo.

She would like Iowa Workforce Development to follow up with people who have not received unemployment benefits within two weeks. Sui also said fact-finding interviews should be finished within two to three weeks of people filing for unemployment.

“It’s really confusing because you don’t know. You just sit there not knowing,” Sui said.

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