Fred Payne

Fred Payne, the commissioner of the Department of Workforce Development, outlines changes in the state’s unemployment filings on Friday in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly 300,000 Hoosiers have filed unemployment claims since the coronavirus pandemic hit Indiana, with $1.4 billion in benefits paid out to claimants through the Department of Workforce Development.

Fred Payne, the commissioner of the department, reported that the state had paid $400 million in addition to the federal government’s $1 billion to Hoosiers since March. Payne said call wait times had decreased by 50%, but didn’t provide context for that figure.

“We’re trending in the right direction here, but we know that is not deep enough for every single Hoosier who has filed for unemployment benefits,” Payne said. “But we will get there and each and every Hoosier, who is eligible, will receive those benefits.”

Looking at the first four weeks in April (ending on April 25), Payne’s department reported 376,920 vouchers on average in response to an information request. A voucher, or a request for unemployment insurance benefits that includes information about hours worked, must be filed each week.

Averaging the weeks, the department reported that 86% of claims were resolved, with nearly one in 10 applicants not receiving benefits. Some of those denied applicants could be self-employed or gig economy Hoosiers, whose unemployment benefits are processed on a different timeline.

Those Hoosiers, previously ineligible for unemployment benefits, were included in the federal stimulus bill in late March and the department said it had to use new software to process those claims.

Payne said that since May 8, when the department starting paying those claims, 60,000 of the 68,000 applicants had received their benefits.

“We’re working through all of the retroactive payments that we need to make on this group of workers,” Payne said.

On average, the department said claims were resolved within 21 days. On Friday, Payne said that claims taking longer than 21 days usually had issues with contacting employers, calculating deductible income and employees voluntarily quitting their jobs.

The average state benefit paid during the month of April was $272.72, the department said, less than the previous reported average benefit of $300. The federal stimulus package awards an additional $600 on top of state benefits, which max out at $390 per week.

Some essential workers have expressed frustration that their positions in grocery stores or delivery services pay less than they would make in unemployment benefits. In response, Payne talked about Hoosiers returning to work.

“(The unemployment system) exists as a bridge between individuals who are out of work due to no reason of their own until they find a job,” Payne said. “We are trying to ensure that there is an interplay between employee and employer on returning to work. … We’re using our unemployment compensation system for the reasons that it was intended.”

The Indiana Chamber called on the state to enact work share legislation in response to unemployment numbers, saying it turned away federal dollars that could stimulate the economy and save the state money.

Under a work share program, employees with reduced hours qualify for partial unemployment compensation if their employers has an established agreement with the state. Employers reduce employee hours but don’t lay off employees, still giving them partial compensation.

“Twenty-eight states today have successful work share programs,” the chamber said in a release. “Workers in those states are able to receive the partial unemployment benefits AND the $600 per week in extra federal support. … Additional dollars will be circulating in the economies of those states — but not in Indiana.”

The chamber highlighted the ability for employers to retain their workforce without losing their skills in a work share program.

“We did take a look at this,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said. “It’s not something that we’re going to move forward on now but down the road it very well might be something that we take a look at.”

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