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

While the Mississippi Department of Employment Security has received more than 290,000 jobless claims as COVID-19 ravaged the nation’s economy, the number of people actually receiving unemployment benefits remains a mystery.

For weeks, the employment office has failed to respond to several public records requests and questions from Mississippi Today, including how many unemployed people it has paid during the pandemic. Officials at the agency say they’re too busy to comply with the Mississippi Public Records Act.

Federal data shows about 30,000 jobless Mississippians on average have filed new unemployment claims each week since the beginning of the economic crisis on March 15. As of May 23, about 200,000 people were still filing weekly claims, which is how they notify the department they’re still unemployed. But the agency has not said how many people they’ve officially approved and of those, how many have actually gotten their money.

Applicants face several hurdles in actually receiving the much needed funds, even when they meet all requirements for either traditional unemployment or the expanded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance passed by Congress.

Claimants must answer an exhaustive list of questions when applying and if they make one wrong entry — selecting “leave of absence” instead of “laid off,” for example — their claim may be flagged with an issue.

The employer may object to the claim, triggering an investigation in which an agency investigator would have to conduct further interviews with the employer to make a determination on the claim within 14 days. Employment Security officials told lawmakers during a hearing on May 7 that the agency had nearly 44,000 pending issues — a “startling number,” said Benefits Payment Chief Jeff Rhodes.

Claimants may also get locked out of their account, which requires them to get through clogged phone lines to an agency employee who can reset their password.

Even if applicants receive a notification saying they’re approved, and even if they can see a balance of funds in their account, they could wait weeks before receiving a direct deposit or their debit card, which allows them to access the money, in the mail.

The state recorded an unemployment rate of 18.8 percent in the week ending May 2 — the eighth highest in the country — up from 15.6 percent in April and 4.8 percent in March.

Historically, unemployment benefits have only reached a fraction, sometimes less than 10 percent of all jobless people looking for work in the state. This could be because they don’t qualify under federal or state guidelines, they exhausted the 26 weeks allotted or they simply didn’t bother to apply for the meager benefit of between $30 to $235 a week in Mississippi, the lowest in the nation. In light of the pandemic, Congress increased the weekly benefit by $600, making it more enticing to jobless workers. The bump is set to expire July 31.

Mississippi Today has three pending requests with the employment agency dating back to March 26, April 6 and April 13 for various records. State law requires agencies to provide records with seven business days of a request, 14 if they request an extension, unless the information is exempt.

“Due to MDES’s critical and heightened responsibilities during the COVID-19 Emergency, we will not be able to re-direct critical resources at this time due to the allocation of time needed to properly respond to certain items in your request,” Employment Security’s communication department said in an emailed response on April 22. “We ask for your patience and understanding.  Please be assured that when normal business operations return (or when the disaster declaration has ended), we will address all such requests.”

Mississippi State Health Department took a similar approach to dealing with requests from newspapers during the pandemic, including a request from Mississippi Today for more comprehensive demographic data on COVID-19 cases.

“As you are aware, MSDH is working around the clock to keep the citizens of Mississippi safe during this pandemic,” the department’s COVID-19 Incident Commander Jim Craig said in an April 15 letter to the news organization in response to requests from April 3 and April 6. “As a result of the necessary work that must be done to combat COVID-19, we do not have the capacity or resources to respond to your specific requests at this time.”

The Health Department recently agreed to release the names of long term care facilities where residents and staff tested positive for COVID-19 after a judge ruled in favor of Hattiesburg Publishing Inc., owner of the Pine Belt News, saying that the department must follow the Act and either supply the information or provide a specific reason the information is exempt under the law.

Mississippi Today also recently inquired about a work program that Employment Security runs, for which it received more than $700,000 from Mississippi Department of Human Services since October. The money came from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal welfare grant that has been the subject of a massive alleged embezzlement scheme over the last three years.

Unemployment officials said it would not answer any questions about how it runs the program, who it serves or their outcomes, instead referring all questions to Human Services. Human Services, which is still responding to public records requests, did provide its $1.3 million subgrant and scope of work with Employment Security to Mississippi Today.

[Don’t Miss: Unemployment in Mississippi weekly updates]

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.