‘We understand the frustration’: Ala. Secretary of Labor responds to unemployment claims backlog

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 3:22 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Alabama’s economy right now appears to be running on two tracks in two very different directions. On one track, an unemployment rate of 3.8% is below other southeast states, and a shortage of workers severe enough to encourage the state this week to say it will cut off the extra federal pandemic unemployment benefits on June 19, 2021.

The state hopes this encourages more workers to find jobs. “Large companies, midsize companies, small companies,” says Alabama’s Secretary of Labor Fitzgerald Washington. “So those jobs are available so all they need to do is reach out and find those available resources.”

But the Department of Labor for months has been dealing with the frustration of thousands of workers who lost their jobs, have a problem with getting their claim for benefits processed, and spend days trying to get one of the 600 daily appointments to speak to a real person, appointment slots that fill up within minutes.

We’re hearing from a lot of people like WBRC FOX6 viewer LaKrystal who’s tried to get through for help but can’t. So we played her voicemail for the secretary of labor.

“The gentlemen today told me the inquiry line only takes 600 calls, that’s not a fraction of the residents of Alabama that’s on unemployment, so I feel like they need to come up with a better system,” she said in her voicemail.

Asked what he would say to workers like LaKrystal who are out there filing for benefits they have earned, and simply can’t get through? “We certainly understand the frustration with some claimants trying to get into our system and talk to a person,” Secretary Washington says. “This is an issue where just sheer demand---the number of people who are on unemployment trying to figure out the technical issues and how we resolve these issues. So I would suggest they continue to call to see if they can be 1 of the 600 that we file the claims for. I can see the frustration. But again, any claims that have been filed before the 19th, that’s the cutoff for the federal benefits, we will honor those claims.”

Washington says his team meets regularly to find ways to improve a system that paid out more unemployment benefits in the last 12 months than it had in the last 11 years, what he calls a tsunami, but one he sees beginning to recede.

“We know there are available jobs out there, so we want to encourage those who are looking for work, there’s opportunities for them to get back into work,” Washington says. “In doing so, we’ll put our economy back to where it was before the pandemic started.”

Another frustration for workers is fraud. The secretary says as they relaxed the rules for filing unemployment claims to speed up that process, they found scammers stealing identities to try and grab extra benefits and that’s why they’ve set up an online portal for you to dispute those claims if someone tries to file in your name. But resolving those for you or for small businesses hit by fake claims takes valuable time, which is also what the department says it will take to catch up to the demand it’s seeing for help.

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