Before the coronavirus ravaged Arizona's economy, Mark Gogan could make up to $1,200 a week as a self-employed computer technician. Now, he makes "virtually nothing."
"When people started getting a feel for how this virus was going, my phones just stopped ringing, my email stopped," Gogan told Phoenix New Times in a phone interview. "It just came to a dead stop."
Gogan, who lives in Peoria, knew Congress was about to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), allowing gig workers and the self-employed to apply for unemployment benefits. So on March 20, a few days before President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act, he logged onto the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) website and filed his first claim.
Nearly three weeks later, Gogan's application remains tied up in Arizona's unemployment system, partially because he applied too early, partially because the system is difficult to navigate, and partially because DES has been inundated with hundreds of thousands of claims during the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite multiple attempts to reach somebody at DES, including several unanswered phone calls, Gogan has yet to speak to a human about his difficulties with the system. His attempts to wade through his options online have led him to several error messages. He hasn't seen a dime of the financial assistance that the federal and state government have set aside to help struggling Americans during this period of staggering unemployment.
And he probably won't for at least a few more weeks, according to Dave Wells, research director for the nonpartisan Grand Canyon Institute, which has studied Arizona's unemployment system. That's because the state is still awaiting guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to pay benefits to workers who previously would not have qualified, confirmed DES spokesperson Brett Bezio. Claims under the CARES act won't be processed until the state modifies its system to accommodate the new federal benefits.
"This is a person who is self-employed who they are not normally equipped to deal with," Wells said after New Times explained Gogan's situation. "He should be anticipating that he won’t get anything till May."
Despite the unique circumstances of his application experience, Gogan's thus-far-unsuccessful attempts to obtain unemployment benefits in Arizona reveal deficiencies and redundancies in a system ill-equipped for a sudden economic downturn.
Gogan filled out the DES online form for unemployment benefits on March 20. A few days later, he received via snail mail a couple of envelopes from the agency: one for Gogan the employee and one for Gogan the employer. On the first form, he stated his job, confirmed that he's seeking work (even though this is no longer a requirement in Arizona), listed the hours he is available to work, and more.
The second form was addressed to his business, Desert Hills Computing LLC, and notified him that his employee (Gogan himself) had filed for unemployment. The form asked Gogan to check a box indicating the reason for "separation," but did not give an option that described his dramatic loss of business due to COVID-19. So Gogan checked the box labeled "laid off," the only available choice that made logical sense to him. The second page of the form asked him to "provide the details of the final incident that caused the separation." He wrote: "Covid 19 virus pandemic."
He faxed both forms to DES on March 26. "And then it’s crickets. It’s crickets, man," Gogan said. "You hear nothing."
The requirement for unemployment applicants to send paperwork to DES after already applying for benefits online stood out to Wells, the Grand Canyon Institute research director. Wells noted that someone at DES will likely need to re-enter information into a computer after the paperwork returns to the agency.
"Most computer systems in Arizona are these byzantine systems put together with bubble gum and tape and other patches. These are all functions of the systematic underfunding of government services in this state," Wells said. "Certainly, the idea that they are going from digital to analog does not suggest they are helping themselves."
When Gogan logged into the DES unemployment portal on April 2, a message informed him that he "does not have an eligible current claim." Yet the same page said DES did not not find any "disqualifications" or "unresolved issues" in his application.
The site also said that Gogan should file a new claim before April 3. But a link directing him to do so sent him to an error page. Another link directing him to file a weekly claim for the week ending March 28 sent him to the same error page.
So Gogan started over and tried to apply for unemployment insurance a second time. But this time, when Gogan submitted his application, the site led him to a page that said, "Based on your claim type you are not able to file your claim over the internet."
The site directed him to a number to file his claim via phone. When Gogan called the number listed for Phoenix, he said, the phone rang for 20 to 30 minutes before disconnecting. He has tried calling multiple times since then and has received the same result every time.
Gogan guessed that he could not apply again because his Social Security number was already in the system. It sounds like he was right.
Bezio explained in his statement that claimants who file for unemployment insurance more than once may receive an error the second time. Anyone who gets an error message should "should call the call center to confirm their claim was received and/or obtain assistance with filing," Bezio said.
To handle the surge in applicants, DES upped its call center workforce from 13 to 150 people. But still: "Because the DES Customer Service Centers are receiving an unprecedented amount of phone calls, this may result in callers receiving a busy signal."
On top of the maddening delays and system failures in the DES unemployment system, Gogan and other applicants like him may have trouble finding answers to basic questions about the process. Information about unemployment benefits as they pertain to COVID-19 are scattered throughout the website, tucked between lines of text, hidden in PDF files, and perhaps unaccessible to the less technologically inclined.
For instance, the DES recently added a gray box to the top of the unemployment site noting that the call center is experiencing "an unprecedented amount of calls." That gray box links users to a "frequently asked questions" page. Clicking on the link opens up a PDF file on "COVID-19 and Unemployment Insurance Benefits." But the page does not have detailed information about the CARES Act. To access that, a user can click a link in the FAQ file, which opens up another PDF file dedicated to questions about the CARES Act.
It doesn't have to be this way, Wells said.
"Originally, Arizona had nothing, and then they fixed it and now they’ve got all these words, words, words, words words," Wells said. "It’s not really designed to help people navigate it really well. This is a confusing time for people anyway."
Wells pointed to Washington state's website for unemployment insurance as a better example. The state's website has all of its coronavirus-related FAQs on one page. The site also includes a digestible graphic explaining who qualifies emergency federal benefits and who doesn't.
Wells added that Arizona could help clear up some confusion about coronavirus-related benefits with frankness. He notes that Wisconsin's website specifically cautions people applying under the CARES Act that it could take "several weeks" before the state can implement the necessary systems to divvy out the new federal benefits.
"I’m sure there are a lot of people thinking they will get a check right away," Wells said. "But my anticipation is that will not happen for a lot of people."
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