Thousands in limbo after filing for unemployment, backlog includes thousands of cases dating back three years

WAFF 48's Megan Plotka reporting
Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 8:22 PM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Legal Services of Alabama is being flooded with calls from people needing help receiving their unemployment checks.

Attorneys with the organization say thousands of people are waiting for these much-needed funds.

Legal Services of Alabama is representing dozens of people similar to Anthony Elliot and Thomas McRoberts in a lawsuit.

Elliot was working at Bye Bye Babies a, subsidiary of Bed Bath and Beyond, when it went under in July. He says he applied for unemployment the day he was laid off and was approved later that week.

Months went by with no word from the Alabama Department of Labor.

“I’m spending the money I have because I’m thinking there’s money coming in,” explains Elliot. “Even when I didn’t get it the first week, the first two weeks, even the first three weeks, I was like it’s coming because everywhere else it comes but it doesn’t seem to be the case.”

McRoberts was in a similar situation. He was laid off in October 2022. He called ADOL many times and always got the same answer.

“Every time they’d tell me, well there’s a huge backlog, there’s no telling when we’d get to it,” McRoberts said. “Do you have any kind of estimate or anything like that? Is it going to be a couple of weeks, a couple of months ,whatever and I never got a straight answer.”

McRoberts was helping support a family of five, including a newborn, while he was waiting on these essential checks in late 2022.

“My girlfriend she would ask me ‘oh yeah you think its coming in soon’ well its [got to] come in soon,” McRoberts said. “So I was looking for a job but I had no money to put in my vehicle for gas. So, I was mainly applying for jobs online and I had to make a certain amount at the job because, with three children in a household, you can’t work for $11.”

Elliot and McRoberts are just drops in the bucket.

Attorney Michael Forton with Legal Services of Alabama says hundreds of people have been calling him for help.

“You know it’s a problem because the entire purpose of unemployment is to be a gap between when you lose work and find new work and it’s just broken,” Forton said.

Representatives with ADOL sent WAFF’s Megan Plotka a statement explaining that there is a backlog. There is an influx of cases from the pandemic, exacerbated existing issues of understaffing and underfunding:

There have been and continue to be issues with unemployment claims being paid as quickly as we would like to pay them. The pandemic, as you know, created a tsunami of claims, with claim totals surpassing several previous years’ worth of claims collectively. Prior to the pandemic, ADOL, along with most Labor agencies across the country, was already facing federal budget cuts due to the decades-old funding mechanisms set in place by Congress. The pandemic exacerbated those issues severely and combined with a lack of staff and no real funding sources to hire permanent employees, the agency continues to experience delays. As stop gap measures, the agency has contracted with third party firms to help alleviate the issues, has re-allocated staff from other divisions to assist with unemployment claims, and has been working diligently to automate and improve software as federal and state law allows.

“The department has largely ignored our requests to discuss this they have not been willing to discuss how they handle claims, why they’re so slow and they won’t even give us information about how slow they are,” Forton said.

Legal Services of Alabama is suing the department on behalf of 23 defendants who are still waiting on unemployment checks three years later.

“It really represents thousands of thousands of people still out there who just never found out if they qualify,” Forton said. “A lot of them, I don’t think its the department’s intent, but just went away and never found out, they gave up because it was too difficult.”

The lawsuit is now pending appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is some good news for Anthony Elliot and Thomas McRoberts, they both received their unemployment check after WAFF Reporter Megan Plotka inquired about their cases with ADOL.

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