UPDATE: I wanted to add video of the not-so-distanced line of people trying to verify their unemployment claims today at an office on South University.
Thousands of workers stymied for months in efforts to receive unemployment benefits now have a lawsuit working for them.
Legal Aid of Arkansas has sued the Division of Workforce Services for refusal for four months to provide responses to Freedom of Information Act requests for queries about the process of handling claims.
Though it’s an FOI lawsuit, the core of the issue is the same thing I’ve been writing about for months, people unable to get benefits or answers for why they cannot.
The Legal Aid news release:
Today, Legal Aid of Arkansas filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Pulaski County to obtain information from the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services about the cause of agency delays preventing thousands of Arkansans from obtaining unemployment benefits needed to meet their basic needs.
With unemployment rates being historically high due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Legal Aid has received numerous calls from Arkansans regarding problems with traditional Unemployment Insurance (“UI”) and/or Pandemic Unemployment (“PUA”), including months-long delays and wrongful denials. “Our clients are desperate to get unemployment to pay rent, eat, and keep the lights on,” says Legal Aid attorney Trevor Hawkins. “Workforce has continued to make it hard on them, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”
To this end, Legal Aid sent DWS a Freedom of Information Act request on October 13, 2020, seeking information about DWS’s decision making processes. After months of extended deadlines, evasive responses, and withheld documents, Legal Aid had no choice left but to sue.
“We granted DWS several extensions, offered to sit down for meetings, and tried asking only for the most important information,” states Legal Aid attorney Jaden Atkins. Nearly a year into the pandemic, DWS has not improved its handling of claims.
As of December 18, 2020, over 26,000 unemployment claims waiting for a decision, with about a quarter of those waiting longer than three months. Some clients are being told that wait times could be up to six months for an initial decision. If someone is denied and appeals, they might wait another three to four months. This lawsuit is Legal Aid’s latest step to ensure accountability from DWS.
On December 18, 2020, Legal Aid sued the agency in federal court for discriminating against a Spanish-speaking client who has had to wait 11 months for a decision. That case is set for an initial hearing on March 5. Hawkins adds, “If people qualify for benefits, they should get them quickly, especially during these desperate times.”
I’ve asked DWI for comment. It typically won’t comment on pending litigation. But my questions go behind litigation, to an explanation for 26,000 people on hold, some for more than three months. UPDATE: They declined to comment.