Out of work in Alaska because of the coronavirus? Here’s what you can do now and the help that’s on the way

Shawn Idom provides a hair cut at his barbershop Hair Science on February 22, 2020. Barbershops are among the non-essential businesses ordered to close in Gov. Dunleavy’s (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

With unemployment claims skyrocketing around the country, state and federal leaders are scrambling to get bills passed to expand unemployment and other benefits to workers whose jobs have been affected by the crisis. 

According to numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor, new unemployment insurance claims in Alaska were up to 8,225 for the week ending in March 21, a nearly eight-fold increase from previous weeks.

Those workers are eligible for up to $370 in payments per week, plus $24 per week for up to three dependents. The compensation is based on how much workers earned in previous pay periods and the more they earned, the higher the unemployment payments. 

But HB308, recently signed by Governor Mike Dunleavy, will improve those benefits. The bill does a couple of things to the current unemployment insurance benefits: 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs HB308 on March 25, 2020, which loosens requirements for unemployment insurance and boosts benefits. (Office of the Governor)
  • It cuts the standard one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits
  • It increases the payment for each dependent from $24 per week to $75 per week. 

The provisions of the bill would also expand the definitions of unemployment by making people eligible who are taking time off work to care for children who are out of school, for example. The new provisions would also allow people who have the coronavirus or for those workers trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus to take unemployment benefits. 

RELATED: Alaska Legislature eases unemployment insurance benefit rules, weighs other emergency measures

Still, not everyone who has been affected by the coronavirus is covered. One glaring loophole in the state legislation is that it doesn’t cover people who are self-employed or contract work, such as hair and nail salon workers, unless they’re specially set up to pay unemployment taxes.

“The program right now doesn’t cover individuals who work in the gig economy, so our Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, individuals who are self-employed and independent contractors,” said Patsy Westcott. 

Federal relief in the CARES Act

But that could change. Since unemployment benefits are paid by the federal government but administered by states, the $2-trillion federal aid package, called the CARES Act that is being finalized in Congress has some potential solutions for that.

For one, it would create a whole new division called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that would provide work to people “not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits” including people who are self-employed, independent contractors, and those with limited work history. 

The bill would also add an additional $600 per week for unemployment programs. That would be a big boost for Alaskans, who are also eyeing extra dividend money – and up to a $1200 payment from the federal government. 

As of Wednesday evening, the CARES Act was still being debated by Congress. 

What does it mean for Alaskans out of work?

For most Alaskans whose work has been reduced due to the coronavirus response, the Department of Labor has a simple message: apply for unemployment. 

“That is the purpose of the program, is to help individuals during these times when you’re unemployed through no fault of your own,” says Westcott. With phone lines busy and staff already working overtime to process the new claims, that means that the best bet is to apply online through the state’s website. 

But for the self-employed or independent contractors – they’ll have to wait until the federal legislation is finalized. 

“We are not currently set up to take those claims,” says Westcott, “As soon as that legislation passes and we can start developing that program.”

For those workers, the Department of Labor says it’s doing its best to get information out in the coming days.

Read the latest coronavirus coverage here.

Other options

There are also other benefits available that require separate applications. 

Medicaid provides health care for low-income residents across the country. Previously, workers applying outside the open enrollment period in the federal marketplace had to prove a change in circumstances, for example, a lost a job or reduced hours cut. But according to Shawnda O’Brien, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance, requirements for documentation have been waived. 

O’Brien says that other documentation requirements have been made to other programs such as senior benefits, heating and childcare in order to make things easier and more hygienic for applicants. 

There are also several food assistance programs for low-income residents. The SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides food credit for people who meet income requirements, while WIC (Women, Infants & Children) can provide benefits to expectant mothers and young children. Applications for WIC can be found through this link, and applications for SNAP can be found here. The Food Bank of Alaska also has a SNAP outreach team to help Alaskans determine their eligibility and answer other questions about the program.

“A lot of people think they don’t qualify and I think in this instance, we would just encourage people to call and talk with either someone at the Department of Public Assistance or someone on our SNAP outreach team and we could kind of estimate their eligibility,” said Cara Durr, director of public engagement at the Alaska Food Bank. 

While staff with the Division of Public Assistance has been reorganizing to more efficiently process applications, there is still usually a week to ten-day wait period for processing, according to O’Brien. That means that people should apply as soon as possible to get benefits as soon as they can.

For those with immediate needs, there are also food resources available thorough the Alaska Food Bank’s network of distributors. The organization works statewide to distribute food to 150 partner organizations statewide, including in rural Alaska. A schedule of where food will be distributed in Southcentral can be found here. 

Durr says that there has already been an increase of 50% in the number of new individuals or families seeking food but that increased donations have helped keep the Food Bank able to provide for everyone who comes, though the nature of food distribution has changed slightly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“They can expect that they’re gonna be getting a pre-boxed box of food, pre-selected, they’re going to be waiting in a line I assume, but there should be sufficient spacing in some instances that may be in the car,” said Durr.

Additional options are available for children. Anchorage School District students can get meals along the ASD’s mobile routes every weekday. Schedules can be found through the ASD’s website, and services for other school districts around Alaska are also overviewed at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website.  Kids under 18 years old can also get meals through the Children’s Lunchbox program at the Spenard or Fairview Recreation Centers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from March 23 until April 3. Children must be present to receive the meals, and two suppers will be distributed per child. Times and details can be found here.

Lex Treinen

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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