Cynthia Gachupin’s story is achingly common. The mother of two was laid off from her part-time bartending job in Anchorage in March. In between continuing her online college classes and trying to keep her kids on track with their own schooling, she was calling the unemployment office.
She filed her claim online, as is advised, but she was denied without being given any reasons. She called the Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s office and, instead of talking to a person, she got a long-recorded message saying the office was overwhelmed with calls. Then she was cut off. “Every day since then I’ve tried to call a couple times, hoping to get through, and just get the same message,” she said in a phone interview in late April.
As of late April, more than 30 million people in the United States had filed for unemployment claims. Though the number is staggering, it may only reflect half of the people who qualify for the programs. A national survey by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan thinktank, suggests that many people who may qualify either aren’t applying because the process is too complicated, or they cannot get through the system because it’s so overwhelmed.
Here are some answers to common questions about filing for unemployment in Alaska.
Who can apply for unemployment benefits? If your hours have been cut or you have lost your job completely, you may be able to file for unemployment benefits. Remember that after you file the application, you must continue to enter your weekly certifications until you return to full-time work. In Alaska, a person can file for unemployment if they have been legally working for an employer who pays Unemployment Insurance Taxes. That means the employer has been contributing to a statewide pool of money specifically for paying unemployment insurance benefits. You have been paying into it, too. Look at your last pay stub and see if it says “AKSUI.” That is the amount you contributed that period. This does not guarantee that you are eligible, though. If you have been paid in cash and aren’t paying taxes, then you can’t file for unemployment. In most states undocumented workers cannot get assistance either. If you are not a U.S. citizen you can still get unemployment benefits if you can prove you could legally work here when you earned the money and you can still legally work here now. Anyone who is legally able to work is potentially eligible to make a claim.
I’m self-employed or own my own business, and I don’t pay Unemployment Insurance Taxes. Can I still get unemployment? Yes, you may now be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has created another pool of money to help people who are self-employed or work gigs, like for Uber or Lyft. If you are denied regular unemployment because you are normally self-employed, an independent contractor, a freelancer, or a gig economy worker, you can file for federal benefits if you are unemployed due to COVID-19 reasons. You will use the same process as people filing for state benefits by signing into your MyAlaska account and selecting the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance link on the Department of Labor and Workforce Development website.
Technically I’m still employed, but my hours or wages have been severely cut. Can I still apply? Yes, and the government will still consider your claim. If you keep working some hours, that will affect your benefits every week. You will have to report your hours and gross earnings for each week, Sunday through Saturday, whether you have actually been paid or not.
The pandemic has forced me to take leave either because of childcare issues or health issues. Do I qualify for unemployment? Everyone is encouraged to apply. As no two unemployed people are exactly alike, your individual case will be reviewed by an unemployment insurance technician and a determination will be made based on your own specific set of circumstances.
How do I know if I’m eligible? This is complicated. You are eligible if you have earned $2,500 of reported income during a 6-month period within the last 18 months. If you just started working a couple of months ago, you may not be eligible. If you are filing in April, May or June, look at your earnings over all of 2019. Did you earn at least $2,500 in either the first half of 2019 or the second half of 2019? The earnings must be spread out. If you earned $2,500 all in one month then you don’t qualify. If you earned money in multiple months over the six months, such as some in June and some in August, then you are likely eligible. If you don’t qualify after looking at your earnings for 2019, look at your earnings for October 2019 through March 2020. You can also combine money earned in other states during the time period to help you meet the eligibility requirement. You may qualify that way, too.
How do I file a claim? The quickest way to file a claim is online through my.alaska.gov. However, if you do not have access to a computer or do not know how to use the website, call them at (907) 269-4700. Try not to call if you don’t need to because the claim centers are overwhelmed. You can speak to someone in Spanish or on any other language. The claims center has a free interpretation service.
IMPORTANT: Do not ask someone you do not know or trust to help file a claim for you. Sometimes people try to steal other people’s unemployment insurance benefits. Your username and password are your electronic signature. You are the one held liable for all information provided by and activities done using that electronic signature.
According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s website and documentation, you need the following to file a claim:
- Your Social Security Number - If you are not a U.S. citizen, you will need your alien registration number and work permit type or other documentation that authorizes your employment in the United States - Name, mailing address and phone number of your last employer and the location where you reported to work - Dates of your last employment, first and last day worked - Earnings you made in the last week of your employment - Other deductible income received in the last week of employment, such as vacation, severance or bonus pay.
If you have dependent children under 18 years of age you wish to claim an additional $75 will be added to your benefit amount for each child. You will need to provide their date of birth and names that can be verified. You may also need to prove that you provide of over 50% of financial support if they do not live in the same household.
I lost my job because of COVID-19. Is the process different for me? No. You still file in the same way for your initial claim. And, you still have to file paperwork about the number of hours you may work every week to prove that you are still eligible for your weekly benefit. Due to current CoVid-19 mandates and legislation, claimants are not required to actively search for work at this time. As more business begin to open this will change. If you refuse an offer of new work while receiving unemployment benefits you will be asked why.
How much will I receive? That depends on how much you were earning before. In Alaska, benefits range from $56 to $370 per week. To keep receiving benefits you must continue to file your weekly claims or “certifications” and report any earnings every week. Payments are not retroactive so if you lose your job today, apply for unemployment benefits as soon as possible. They will not pay you for the weeks that you qualified but didn’t claim. Because of the pandemic, the federal government is paying an additional $600 per week to everyone who qualifies for and receives unemployment benefits during that specific week. That includes people who were receiving unemployment benefits even before the pandemic started. This is called the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). Anyone who receives any amount in unemployment payments from March 29 until July 25, 2020 will also receive this extra money each week. Sometimes when people are part of the unemployment insurance program, they can pick up a few hours here and there. You must report these gross earnings. Money will be deducted from your unemployment check. As long as you still receive at least $1 in unemployment benefits that week, you can still get the $600 pandemic compensation from the federal government.
Wow. $600 per week is a lot. Can I ask my job to lay me off or reduce my hours so I can get this payment? No. That’s considered fraud. Quitting your job only because you want to get unemployment benefits is also considered fraud and will be investigated.
I looked at the status of my claim and it says there’s an “active issue” with it. What does that mean? It means the Department of Labor needs more information from you. Someone from their claims center will call you at the number you provided. Make sure you answer any calls from unemployment and that your voicemail is not full and able to accept messages. You do not need to call them unless you are sent a letter to contact them within 7 days.
My claim was denied. Now what? You can appeal it by phone, email, mail, or fax within 30 days of the decision. The appeals office will mail you a notice telling you when you will have a hearing to discuss the appeal. After the hearing you will receive a new notification in the mail about their decision. While this process is going on, which can take weeks, you need to keep filing weekly for unemployment. If you do not, you won’t receive benefits for those weeks even if you were eligible.
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