Shared from the 3/31/2020 The Providence Journal eEdition

Labor Dept. ‘swamped’ by unemployment claims

Bottom line: Online applications likely to process faster


Scott Jensen, director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, says the agency’s workers are “swimming as fast as we can.”



The DLT processes claims by phone and online; given the current deluge, online will be the faster route.

The unprecedented wave of business closings and layoffs caused by the coronavirus crisis has stretched Rhode Island’s jobless-benefit system to the breaking point.

In the past two weeks, long phone waits and website slowdowns have greeted people trying to file claims. State Labor Department Director Scott Jensen acknowledges his agency is “swamped,” but says its employees are “swimming as fast as we can, and we are keeping our head above water.”

Through Saturday, Rhode Island had received around 65,000 unemployment insurance claims and another 10,000 temporary disability insurance claims since March 9, the vast majority of them coronavirusrelated. For perspective, there were around 500,000 total non-farm, Rhode Island-based jobs in February.

To manage the overload, the state jettisoned some of its standard procedures for unemployment insurance, is moving many of its operations onto the internet and is taking advantage of the federal stimulus bill signed last week.

It’s a lot of moving parts at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty. Jensen spoke to The Journal on Monday to break down what residents should know.

If workers have been laid off or their employer shut down indefinitely because of COVID-19, what should they do?

Apply for unemployment insurance, but not by phone. The DLT processes claims by phone and online, but given the current deluge, the Internet is faster. The online portal is

At the same time it’s processing a historic volume of claims, the DLT is also trying to social-distance its work force and doing so under a statewide hiring freeze.

“The best thing to do is apply online,” Jensen said, acknowledging that at times the DLT website has been “spinning” and slowing down. “We haven’t had it crash yet.”

“If it is spinning, give it a half-hour ... be patient.“

Is the state shifting workers to DLT from other agencies to help process claims?

Jensen said some Rhode Island Lottery workers have been helping answer unemployment questions, but that processing claims requires training that can’t be provided with social distancing.

In fact, the DLT is actually in the process of moving call-center employees — around 50 are on duty per day — to working from home to protect them from spreading coronavirus.

The agency is working through security challenges of processing claims remotely and is increasing phone lines and expanding Internet bandwidth, Jensen said.

How will the $2.2-trillion federal stimulus change my unemployment benefit?

Federal aid will add $600 to weekly unemployment benefits — the state’s base benefit ranges from $53 to $586 per week based on prior earnings — and extend the length you can be on unemployment in Rhode Island from 26 to 39 weeks.

It will also allow independent contractors and workers in the so-called “gig economy” to collect jobless benefits, which they couldn’t access before.

However, the state is still awaiting final guidance on the stimulus from the U.S. Department of Labor and can’t award benefits to those gig workers until it does, Jensen said. To receive immediate notice when the benefits are available, expected to be in the next few days, sign up at https://


How is Rhode Island’s unemployment insurance trust fund holding up?

The unemployment insurance trust fund balance was $500.2 million on Monday, according to DLT spokeswoman Angelika Pellegrino. It was $524 million on March


Are temporary caregiver Insurance benefits being extended?

Applications for Rhode Island temporary disability and temporary caregiver benefits, which are paid from the same fund, have also soared this month. On Monday Gov. Gina Raimondo said temporary caregiver benefits, which pay a percentage of lost wages for people taking care of a loved one or new child, will be extended through April now that students will be at home at least that long. panderson@

(401) 277-7384

On Twitter:


See this article in the e-Edition Here