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Alabama Sued for Long Delays in Unemployment Benefit Checks

The coronavirus pandemic caused an unprecedented number of jobless aid applications, creating a deep backlog which the state says is impossible to quickly clear; a group of residents has filed a lawsuit in complaint of the delays.

an unemployment benefits application
Shutterstock/Moab Republic
(TNS) — A group of Alabamians who struggled during the pandemic to get through the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system is suing the Alabama Department of Labor.

The lawsuit, brought by Legal Services Alabama, alleges the long delays in getting applications approved, hearing back, and scheduling reviews of denied applications left many Alabamians facing unemployment with no support and violated the law. The group is asking the court to order the state to improve and speed up its process to ensure Alabamians get help when they need it.

“Plaintiffs have experienced extreme delays at every step of the unemployment process,” Legal Services Alabama stated in its complaint.

But the state contends that it’s impossible to clear the current backlog in 90 days even if the court intervenes and that the department is working as fast it can in the face of an unprecedented flood of claims.

“The Plaintiffs ask this Court to take over management of the Alabama Department of Labor,” reads the state response this month. “In the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic, ADOL faced a tsunami of unemployment claims.”

In response, the department in March filed a motion to dismiss the suit. The state also argues that both the department and Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington are protected by sovereign immunity and that the defendants lack standing because they have not presented facts that show an injury.

The case was filed in circuit court and assigned to Judge James Anderson in Montgomery County in February.

The Labor Department declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

In an email to, Michael Forton, director of advocacy at Legal Services Alabama, rejected the state’s claim that it is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

“Although Legal Services Alabama has a great amount of respect for the Department of Labor we simply disagree that they have done all that they can in order to process claims in a timely manner,” he said. “Filing this suit was a last resort for LSA and we did it because we felt like we would be failing our clients if we did nothing.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress allocated money to states to provide $600 in weekly unemployment payments to augment existing state unemployment benefits for people laid off during the pandemic.

The department received 1,424,739 total unemployment claims since April of 2020. Of those, 1,038,172 were COVID related, the state stated in its motion. The department saw a 580 percent increase in claims between May of 2019 and May of 2020.

“(The department) is doing everything in its power to resolve the backlog that this unprecedented number of claims caused, but that’s not good enough for Plaintiffs,” reads the state’s motion to dismiss. “They want this Court to supervise every step of (the department’s) administrative process — right down to the formatting of its own forms.”

According to the department, it is has processed 24,018 appeals since April of 2020. Over 12,000 appeals are waiting to be heard and over 36,000 documents need to be reviewed.

Legal Services alleges the state has penalized some applicants by paying them and then improperly determining them to have been “overpaid” and placing them in a Treasury Offset Program so that any tax returns they might have would be taken to cover the alleged overpayment.

The department responded that it would need to review any such complaints through the standard appeals process.

“Plaintiffs’ assertions that any determinations that they received overpayments incorrectly applied (under) the law are a matter for them to take up by appealing those determinations — not by bringing this collateral suit to skip the line,” the department stated in its motion to dismiss.

Among the 26 defendants suing the state are 68-year-old Aaron Johnson who was laid off from the U.S. Census Bureau according to the complaint. He applied for unemployment in October of 2020 but had not gotten a decision on his eligibility as of January of 2022 despite calling many times, according to the complaint.

Another defendant in the suit, Christin Burnett, lost her job in 2019 and applied for unemployment. According to the complaint, the department found her eligible and paid her regular assistance, separate from the pandemic unemployment assistance, until October of 2020.

She didn’t get a response about her application for pandemic unemployment but found out online she was ineligible and was later told it was because of an error involving her social security number and because she lost her job before COVID.

“Ms. Burnett is unable to find new employment because of COVID. She is waiting for (the department) to acknowledge her hearing request and schedule a hearing,” the lawsuit says.

The department acknowledged that staffing shortages hindered the processing of the many claims and argued that it is moving as quickly as it can now.

“The Department is now entering in appeals received in early December 2020,” said Thomas Daniel, director of Unemployment Compensation in an affidavit in the suit. “Given the current backlog, it is impossible to provide a hearing date for all claimants within 90 days — even if ordered by the court”

Several nearby states have outperformed Alabama in issuing timely decisions about pandemic unemployment claims according to federal data that Legal Services Alabama submitted as a part of the lawsuit.

Alabama resolved almost no appeals to unemployment claim decisions within the first 90 days. Florida, Georgia and Louisiana performed slightly better than Alabama but also saw considerable lags in response time, according to federal data.

Arkansas and Mississippi outpaced neighboring states considerably, however. Arkansas decided between 32 and 43 percent of its appeal hearings within 40 days and Mississippi resolved more than 81 percent in that timeframe.

As part of the suit, Legal Services asks for an injunction requiring the department to schedule review hearings within 90 days of a request, to rescind “overpayment” determinations that were made improperly, and to pay applicants within two days of approval for benefits.

The group also asked for an injunction requiring the department to make its communication less confusing and on a level that someone with an eighth-grade reading ability could understand.

“When defendants send claimants notices, all too often the notices are confusing, inconsistent with other notices they have sent, and lacking sufficient information for the claimants to determine the reason for the denial.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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