Unemployment office encourages Mississippians affected by COVID-19 to apply online

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Mississippi Department of Employment Services

The Mississippi Department of Employment Services will open the call center March 21 and 22, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has expanded weekday hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

As the Mississippi Department of Employment Security prepares for a dramatic spike in applications for unemployment insurance amid the coronavirus pandemic, the agency is encouraging folks to apply online to free up its call lines.

The agency announced late Friday afternoon people affected by the virus “will be eligible to file for unemployment benefits,” based on new legislation Congress passed earlier in the week. The release did not guarantee these people would be eligible to receive the check — currently a max of $235 a week — or specify the ways in which it had actually expanded eligibility. The agency release said it is “modifying existing unemployment compensation rules to allow workers to file a claim” if they fall into the following categories:

  • quarantined by a doctor or the government
  • laid off or sent home without pay due to the virus
  • diagnosed with COVID-19
  • caring for immediate family member diagnosed with COVID-19

Earlier in the week, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which offers an additional $1 billion for state unemployment programs among other relief for workers.

The legislation also allows states to waive requirements that people receiving unemployment conduct work searches, which could be hard to meet during the pandemic, as well as the “waiting week,” which refers to the first eligible week of unemployment when a person does not receive a check. Employment Security did not announce these measures Friday but director Jackie Turner told Mississippi Today she expects Mississippi will follow other states in doing so.

Mississippi closed the WIN Job Centers, resource centers that refer people to employment, to the public Monday and only served people by appointment this week.

As businesses and restaurants close to reduce the spread of the illness, Mississippians facing layoffs are turning to the unemployment office for help to make ends meet. Some have faced hiccups filing for unemployment online, receiving a message that they had a “pending issue on your claim.”

Turner said this issue arose because Mississippi’s unemployment system must interact, or “cross match,” with other federal systems and due to a large influx of claims in other states, the system became sluggish. Some sites in other states crashed this week.

“Some of the messages our clients are getting are because of issues outside of our control,” Turner said. “This is unprecedented. I can’t say that someone might not receive messages like that, but we pledge to work through the issues. We ask for patience as we work through those issues.”

Workers have also had trouble getting through to the call center, saying they waited for hours on hold before being disconnected. To handle the increased workload, Employment Security is moving employees from other areas of the department to the call center. Where they normally have 50 to 60 employees or temporary workers taking calls, Turner said they may double or triple that number depending on the demand. The agency is acquiring new sites so they can spread these workers out, adhering to social distancing recommendations.

“This group of people here is working really hard to get people their unemployment,” Turner said.

The department will open the call center this weekend, March 21 and 22, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has expanded weekday hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Turner could not predict how much of an increase in claims the state will see in coming weeks.

The most recent data showing how many people have filed claims since COVID-19 reached Mississippi was not available on the U.S. Department of Labor website Friday and Turner said her agency was barred from releasing it.

Another agency that provides assistance to people in need, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, announced earlier this week that it would not have to discontinue vital services; it closed child support offices but payments will be issued as normal. The new federal legislation allows states to waive work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but Mississippi has not announced those measures. The state also asked for a federal waiver so that it could continue paying child care providers through the Child Care Development Fund based on the number of children enrolled, not daily attendance, so the centers don’t suffer financially if they have to close or if parents keep their children at home.

The department will provide updates as the situation evolves at www.mdhs.ms.gov/covid-19-updates.

Folks applying for unemployment may do so at www.mdes.ms.gov or by calling 1-888-844-3577