A stock image of a person filling out an unemployment form Credit: File photo

Last updated July 23

As it has nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic has set off a record-setting rush of Mississippians filing for unemployment, a benefit paid for through employer taxes.

In Mississippi, the maximum weekly benefit is $235, but the federal stimulus bills Congress passed in response to the virus increases benefits by $600 until July 31 and encourages states to waive the program’s work search requirements and one-week waiting period. It also expanded eligibility through a program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to people who would not qualify for traditional unemployment. These include independent contractors and self-employed people sometimes called “1099 employees” as well as people who quit their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic.

These provisions, which ensure jobless workers can support their families through this health and economic crisis, make the program more enticing and easier to access.

However, Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which administers the benefits, has struggled to process the influx of claims, delaying applications for some workers, despite more than tripling its call center staff. Updating the automated unemployment insurance system, for which the state uses a private vendor, has proved challenging and time-consuming. The website continued to notify applicants who should qualify for the pandemic assistance that they were not eligible for benefits until April 21, at which point the system was updated. Department officials promise they will reach and redetermine eligibility for those people who already applied.

Mississippi Employment Security Director Jackie Turner said folks approved for unemployment should begin receiving the additional $600 as early as April 10. 

By April 4, Mississippi’s workforce appeared to have lost about as many people — 84,000 who filed initial unemployment insurance claims since Mar. 15 — as jobs state leaders have credited themselves with creating since the 2008 recession.

By June, more than 200,000 people had filed for unemployment. The number of initial claims received by the department during the pandemic totaled more than 420,000 by July 18, according to numbers it provided to the federal government.

The department separately released that it had established 81,136 claims under the expanded eligibility offered by Pandemic Unemployment Assistance by May 30.

The department recorded the highest number of continued unemployment claims, about 208,000 who filed a weekly certification indicating they still need the benefit, on May 2. That represented an increase of about 2380 percent from the 8,400 filing weekly on average in the weeks prior to Mar. 15. By July 11, continued claims dropped to about 154,000, indicating some may have already reentered the workforce.

According to numbers published by the federal government on July 23, 51,332 people filed continued PUA claims in Mississippi the week ending July 4.

The department has shied away from releasing how many of these claimants are actually receiving their funds, partly because they don’t track the delivery progress of the debit cards, which are administered by a third party vendor. The agency did release an internal report suggesting it was issuing payments to about 87 percent of continued claimants by late May.

To file an unemployment claim, the department encourages people to create an account and submit the claim electronically at mdes.ms.gov, or fill out a downloadable application and email it to UIClaims@mdes.ms.gov. Individuals experiencing issues may email cv19@mdes.ms.gov with their concerns or call (888) 844-3577 between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., though they may experience long wait times. Applicants may also file their claim by phone or email with their local WIN Job Center, though the centers’ walk-in lobbies have closed. 

Mississippi Today will update the following charts with data U.S. Department of Labor publishes every Thursday. Send us your questions about unemployment by email to awolfe@mississippitoday.org.

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.