Special Report: Unemployment in Arkansas: Where do we go from here?

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The pandemic is not only causing a health crisis in Arkansas but an economic one too. We share the stories of three Arkansans navigating through this pandemic as state leaders work to get unemployment numbers down.

NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — “The market is just so much less than I would’ve expected coming into it with a master’s degree,” Lauren Husband said.

She’s finishing up her master’s at the University of Arkansas, where she also worked as a teaching assistant.

“We’re in a special situation where we don’t necessarily receive a salary, we receive a stipend,”
Husband said. “I had my graduate assistantship for two years, and so we’re not eligible for unemployment and we already make low wages.”

She said her contract ended in May and she was considered to have voluntarily quit her job, so she didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. She’s spent her summer searching for jobs in the nonprofit field.

“Unfortunately those kinds of jobs aren’t available right now,” Husband said.

Julia Kaiser said she was working at Topgolf when the pandemic forced businesses to close in March.

“At the time, we thought it was one of those things where it was, like, two weeks this will be forgotten about and it will be over and we’ll go back to work,” Kaiser said.

But weeks turned to months so Kaiser decided to work at a local grocery store.

“Bills had to be paid,” Kaiser said. “I wasn’t afraid to work, and I just didn’t need unemployment. There’s people that truly do need it, and I didn’t consider myself one of those people.”

When restaurants reopened in May, she picked up a second job. She’s spent her summer juggling two jobs until she got the call from her National Guard unit to go help at Washington Regional Hospital.

“I was working at the call center and we relieved the nurses working there,” Kaiser said.

As for Jennifer Taliaferro, she’s spent the summer waiting to go back to work at a local theater.

“The issue I have there is I do have a disability and, the theater I work for, they work within the confines of my disability,” Taliaferro said.

She’s receiving unemployment benefits and was also receiving the $600 a week from the federal government. She says she saved that money as a rainy day fund because she’s moving at the end of the month.

“I’m going to have all these bills that I haven’t been having to pay with utilities cable and all of that kind of stuff,” Taliaferro said.

State Secy. of Commerce Mike Preston said in early May, continued unemployment claims peaked at 122,000. He also said the state has been dealing with fraudulent activity, forcing thousands of accounts to be locked.

“Anyone whose been a victim of identity theft or you’ve had your information compromised, like we said, going up the last 20 years, it potentially could be used for a fraudulent claim in unemployment,” Secy. Preston said.

He said while there is still work that needs to be done, they have provided assistance to thousands of Arkansans.

According to Preston, the state has paid more than one billion dollars out in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, nearly early $600 million in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and almost $400 million in the Traditional Unemployment Assistance.

“Funds are moving from the Department of Workforce Services out to those individuals who need it. It’s moving in our economy,” Secy. Preston said.

So, where do we go from here?

For the State, Secy. Preston said all eyes are on Congress as it decides whether to extend additional benefits.

“Our unemployment insurance is through a traditional trust fund,” Secy. Preston said. ” [It] has been built by employers who pay a tax on their employees and if we were to spend any additional funds out of that, we have to replenish that, and the only way to do that is through a business, and we certainly don’t want to add any burden on businesses right now to pay additional funds.”

As Arkansans continue navigating through this economic crisis, Husband said she wants to see grad assistants be included in receiving financial relief.

“I would say us recent graduates are some of the most vulnerable because we don’t have that built-up savings,” Husband said. “We’re just getting out into the world or we’re working on really low wages.”

Kaiser is taking safety precautions as she works on the frontlines to provide for herself.

“If you have bills that need to be paid and unemployment doesn’t extend, then I think you do what you got to do until this passes,” Kaiser said.

Taliaferro is hoping a decision is made soon on additional benefits from the federal government.

“If the new stimulus package doesn’t go into effect, it will be week to week because the amount of money I get from unemployment is very minimal,” Taliaferro said.

If you have questions regarding unemployment benefits, contact the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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