Pending unemployment appeals skyrocket as state struggles to dig out from COVID backlog

Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — Data requested by CBS4 uncovered a huge backlog of unemployment appeals that left some Hoosiers waiting months for decisions while they struggled to make ends meet.

The number of pending appeals has increased exponentially since July, spiking at nearly 28,000 in January. According to data provided in response to a public records request, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development has been unable to hold enough hearings each month to keep up with rising numbers of appeals.

Indiana unemployment appeals (Source: DWD)

Hoosiers can file an appeal if they are denied benefits and disagree with the decision. They are assigned a hearing date, conducted via phone by an administrative law judge hired by DWD.

CBS4 took the data to two attorneys who represent employees: both said they were not surprised based on their clients’ experiences.

“I have folks who were basically making minimum wage (and) folks who were making six figures: they can’t get anywhere,” employment attorney Stephanie Jane Hahn said.

“Waiting up to five months for your appeal has been fairly common for our clients,” Indiana Legal Services’ staff attorney Jenny Terry said.

Indiana Legal Services hired Terry specifically to help with unemployment cases, after a massive rise in demand from low-income clients at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Terry, many clients have had to file multiple appeals due to the way the state’s unemployment system works.

“It is very what I would call siloed,” Terry said. “A claims investigator will make a determination on one issue in a case and not look at what the other issues in a case might be.”

Lori Muhammad filed three appeals after she was denied benefits. Frustrated by delays, she contacted her state representatives and finally scheduled her last two appeals hearings for this week, seven months after the state acknowledged her filing.

“It’s absolutely horrible they weren’t set up to take this type of overload,” Muhammad said.

CBS4 wanted to talk to Indiana DWD about the data and appeals process, but the agency has denied all interview requests since last fall. Instead, the agency took two weeks to reply to a list of questions submitted via email.

“We are now resolving appeals quicker than they are being requested,” the agency said in part. “DWD has received a lot of requests for appeals on certain cases that did not actually warrant an appeal; we also received many duplicates. It took the appeals team a lot of time to work through these cases to identify what actually was an appeal and schedule those.”

The agency acknowledged that many claimants have multiple appeals and said “some of the appeals that are pending likely won’t turn into an actual hearing, as the claimant is already receiving PUA. We have modified scheduling practices to gain efficiencies and resolve some issues quicker. We are, and have been, hiring Administrative Law Judges, who must be licensed Indiana attorneys.”

According to numbers provided by DWD, the number of administrative law judges has increased from 21 to more than 70, with another 23 being hired soon. The agency has also been conducting hearings on weekends.

At a recent news conference, CBS4 asked DWD Commissioner Fred Payne what he would say to Hoosiers stuck in the unemployment system, waiting for decisions.

“We’ll continue to make sure that we pay all eligible Hoosiers and we’ll make sure that we get to them as quickly as possible,” Payne said.

Hahn and Terry both said they hoped to see the state make changes to its unemployment system so that such a large backlog doesn’t happen again.

“This is in everybody’s best interest for this system to work and to work properly,” Hahn said.

“A lot of our clients do experience hardships because of the long wait time for benefits,” Terry said. “(It) would be great if DWD’s system had (some) kind of an ombudsman or other kind of resource that everyone could use.”

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