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Economy

Department of Labor closed Birmingham unemployment office as COVID-19 spread

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people applying for unemployment in Alabama continues to skyrocket amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but there are fewer people handling those claims this month than last. 

The Alabama Department of Labor closed an office in Birmingham and let some workers go earlier this month. That staffing shortage, coupled with an onslaught of new claims, has slowed the time it’s taking to process them, one worker told APR

Approximately 74,056 people filed unemployment claims during the week that ended  March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data. That was far more than had ever been filed for any week going back to 1987, when the U.S. Department of Labor began keeping data on weekly unemployment claims. 

“Where we would have alerted a claimant that it would take two to three weeks, now the verbiage is, as soon as administratively possible,” the employee at the department told APR by phone Saturday. The person asked not to be identified as they’re still employed with the state. 

It’s currently taking between six and seven weeks to process claims, the worker said, and people who have applied are expressing concern over the long wait. 

“It’s an issue,” the worker said. 

The employee said workers at the now-closed Birmingham office were called into a meeting on Feb. 18 and told the office would close for good on March 13. Anyone who wanted to continue working for the department had to report to the Montgomery office on March 16, the worker said, or they would be “considered to have quit.” 

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In a response to APR’s questions, Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison wrote that “Eleven employees found other positions in a career center or tax office, three employees resigned in lieu of transferring, two are retiring, and six conditional employees were separated.”

There was no discussion in that Feb. 18 meeting of the novel coronavirus or the possibility of mass filings, the workers said. There was discussion of what might happen if another recession hit, the person said, but administrators didn’t have a plan for that. 

China informed the World Health Organization about the novel coronavirus on Dec. 31. President Donald Trump on Jan. 31 banned foreign nationals entry into the country if they had traveled to China within the last two weeks. 

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Feb. 18, the day workers were told the Birmingham office would be closing. 

A day after the Feb. 18 meeting at the Birmingham office Iran’s COVID-19 breakout began. 

By March 8, eight days before workers were ordered to show up to the Montgomery office, Italy ordered a lockdown of 60 million residents. Three days later the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. 

By March 13, the day the Birmingham office closed, there were 2,611 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. 

The worker said just 15 of the 37 employees made the move to the Montgomery office, and those who did are faced with an overwhelming workload and are spending hours each day doing jobs that others had done before the move. All but one of the 15 adjudicate claims, the person said, meaning they process them and determine whether the person should receive unemployment benefits. 

Hutchison told APR that the decision to close the Birmingham office was made because of funding and budget issues. 

“The Unemployment Insurance program’s budget has been cut repeatedly for several years.  The building’s rental and overhead costs were eliminated by transferring those employees to the Montgomery Call Center,” Hutchison said in the message. 

The worker questioned, however, why the department waited until a month before the planned closure to inform the staff, and expressed concern that there 

“As you know, we are taking in remarkable numbers of new claims due to COVID-19.  There was no way to know at the time that this situation would occur. We are working constantly to improve service, and one of those ways is by reutilizing those employees who transferred to other positions, and having them accept claims,” Hutchison said. “We are also looking to bring back those conditional employees who have separated, if they haven’t found other work.  Additionally, the federal government is providing increased funding to assist with staffing issues.”

The Birmingham office was already short-staffed enough to have been allowing staff there overtime pay to handle existing claims, the employee said. 

“This just added just a whole new level,” the person said. 

The workers said staff at the department want the public to know that they care and are working hard to get claims processed as quickly as possible. 

“We want to make sure that we’re doing the job right. We want to make sure that we’re following guidelines that we’ve had in place all throughout our employment with how to do these claims,” the person said. “If the public knew that, that would be great.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Economy

Alabama Gulf Coast beaches remain closed for now

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that beaches will remain closed for now due to ongoing repair and cleanup efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sally.

“Working closely with Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, as well as Commissioner Billy Joe Underwood, the governor has agreed to keep Baldwin County’s beaches closed until Friday, October 2nd,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “This will allow those communities additional time to get their beaches ready for public enjoyment in a safe, responsible manner.”

Mobile County beaches might open earlier than that.

“Likewise, the governor has been in touch with Mayor Jeff Collier, and she is prepared to amend the beach closure order for Mobile County when he signals that Dauphin Island is ready to reopen their beaches,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “At the present time, all Alabama beaches remain closed until further notice.”

Hurricane Sally came ashore near Gulf Shores on Sept. 16 as a category two hurricane with 105 mile per hour winds. Numerous homes, businesses and farms have been destroyed and many more have seen serious damage.

“As of Wednesday night, approx. 37,000 cubic yards of Hurricane Sally debris (equivalent to roughly 1,700 truck loads worth) has been picked up in Orange Beach since Sunday (4 days),” the city of Orange Beach announced. “Kudos to our debris contractor CrowderGulf.”

“I spent Sunday afternoon meeting with senior staff and I believe we will need some time to get our buildings safe for children to return,” said Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Taylor in a letter to parents. “We live in a very large county. Power may be on in your area and your school may not have any damage, but we cannot open schools unless all schools can open. Our pacing guides, state testing, meal and accountability requirements are based on the system, not individual schools.”

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“We have schools without power and for which we do not expect power until later this week,” Taylor said. “In this new age, we need internet and communications which are currently down so we cannot run any system tests. We have physical damage at our schools including some with standing water, collapsed ceilings and blown out windows. We have debris on our properties and debris blocking our transportation teams from picking up students. All of this must be resolved before we can successfully re-open.”

“If everything goes as planned, I expect we will welcome back students on Wednesday, September 30,” Taylor said. “Prior to returning students to school, we will hold two teacher work days to get our classrooms and our lessons plans back on track.”

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Economy

SNAP replacement benefits coming to three counties hit by Hurricane Sally

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Thousands of SNAP recipients in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties are set to receive automatic replacement benefits as a result of Hurricane Sally, the Alabama Department of Human Resources announced Thursday.

Recipients who received their benefits Sept. 1 through Sept. 16 will receive a replacement of 50 percent of their regular monthly benefit. Those who received supplemental pandemic maximum allotment payments will receive a replacement of 30 percent of those benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service approved the replacement benefits today at the request of DHR. The benefits are intended to replace food purchased with SNAP that was lost to widespread power outages caused when Hurricane Sally made landfall on Sept. 16.

“Our priority is to remove the very real threat of hunger for the many Alabamians who are struggling from the devastation of Hurricane Sally,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner. “The first step toward that goal is to replace the food that so many Alabamians lost to the storm. We are actively working to obtain additional resources to provide much-needed relief for the region as it recovers.”

Hurricane Sally caused over 265,000 households to lose power for at least four hours in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties, where approximately 54,000 households will receive SNAP benefits totaling an estimated $8.5 million.

Those recipients should expect to see the replacement benefits automatically loaded onto their EBT cards next week.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama.

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More information about the program can be found at dhr.alabama.gov/food-assistance.

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Economy

Unemployment assistance available to workers in Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile Counties

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced Thursday that workers who became unemployed as a direct result of Hurricane Sally in Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile Counties may qualify for unemployment assistance.

People who live in or worked in these counties and became unemployed due to Hurricane Sally during the period of Sept. 14, 2020, may be eligible for assistance under the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, which was triggered when President Donald Trump designated the area as a disaster area on Sept. 20, 2020.

“Generally, those who are eligible for state unemployment benefits are not eligible for DUA, but a claimant may qualify if state unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted,” said Washington. “If you believe you are entitled to these benefits, I urge you to file a claim to see if you are eligible.”

People who may be eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance include the following:

  • Individuals who no longer have a job, are unable to reach the place of employment, or were scheduled to start work in the major disaster area and the job no longer exists
  • Those who became the breadwinner or major support of the family because the head of household died, or those who cannot work because of an injury incurred during the major disaster

All the previously described circumstances must be as a direct result of the hurricane. Self-employed individuals must provide a copy of their 2019 tax return, business license or Form 1099 within 21 days after applying for DUA benefits.

Claims can be filed through ADOL’s website at labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382.

The deadline to file a DUA claim is Oct. 28, 2020, for Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile Counties.

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Alabama Farmer’s Federation starts a relief fund for farmers impacted by Sally

Brandon Moseley

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A satellite image of Hurricane Sally. (VIA NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

The Alabama Farmers Federation said Monday that it has established a relief fund to help farmers from across the state whose farms were damaged by Hurricane Sally.

“When disaster strikes, I am always impressed by the people of Alabama and their giving spirits,” said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell. “As we started receiving photos of damaged crops, barns and equipment, we also started getting questions from people about what they could do to help our farmers, and that’s why we’ve established this fund.”

All the donations to the relief fund are tax-deductible and may be made online or by check payable to Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation at P.O. Box 11000, Montgomery, AL 36191. Please include “hurricane relief fund” in the check memo line.

“Most of our farmers had as good a crop as we’ve ever seen, and it was so close to harvest for cotton, soybeans, peanuts and pecans,” Parnell said. “It’s devastating to lose a crop that had so much promise. Our farmers are great people who are assisting each other with cleaning up the damage, and we’re so grateful to everyone across the state who is helping in some way, like donating to the relief fund.”

Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores as a category two storm Sept. 16 with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Official reports from the National Weather Service show more than 20 inches of rain in Baldwin County.

The combination of heavy rains and high winds damaged crops, structures and equipment from Mobile and Baldwin Counties in the southwest through Russell County in the east.

It has been a difficult few years for farmers.

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While the general economy had been doing well prior to the coronavirus global pandemic, the farmers were caught in the middle of an international trade dispute over tariffs and fair competition.

Chinese retaliation against Americans farm products depressed commodity markets from 2018 through early this year.

When it appeared that the U.S. and China had come to a trade accord in January, the coronavirus hit along with massive disruptions in the supply chain.

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Farm bankruptcies were already up pre-COVID-19. The loss of the 2020 crop could push some already struggling agribusinesses over the brink.

The Alabama Farmers Federation is Alabama’s largest and most influential farmers’ organization.

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