KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — Several weeks into Idaho's coronavirus emergency and following hundreds of thousands of jobless claims, some residents are still reporting issues accessing unemployment benefits.
While attempting to contact an Idaho Department of Labor spokesperson on Monday morning, KREM was unable to get through on the agency's phone lines.
Ron Tarwater, a temporarily unemployed Kootenai County resident, can relate to this predicament.
"One day, I was on hold on the phone for 59 minutes," said Tarwater of his attempts in recent weeks to contact the labor department.
Tarwater provides security for a "nationwide company" at one of its job sites in Coeur d'Alene, but is currently on a leave of absence due to his risk of contracting coronavirus.
"I have a doctor's note from my doctor saying I'm at high risk. He's advising me to self-quarantine," Tarwater said.
His job typically finds him in close proximity with other people.
"Forget the six feet. I can be within inches of them," he explained.
After applying for unemployment, Tarwater says that state labor employees told him his claim has to be audited. Until that happens and a state employee follows up with him, he won't see any money, Tarwater explained.
"In this situation, they've told me they have no clue how long it will take," he said.
Tarwater added that he provided the note from his doctor advising him to self-quarantine to the state as evidence of his temporary unemployment.
"I've sent that to [the labor department]. They've said that they have it, but my case hasn't been assigned to anybody and they'll get to me when they can," Tarwater said.
As of Monday afternoon, it wasn't entirely clear how long it was taking the state to process unemployment claims or complete audits, such as in the case of Tarwater. Attempts to call the Idaho Department of Labor were unsuccessful.
An agency spokesperson had previously not returned emails sent from KREM regarding a separate story.
In the first five weeks since Idaho declared a state of emergency regarding coronavirus, 108,984 Idahoans had filed for unemployment benefits.
State data showed that for the week ending on April 18, the state was still handling 67,722 continued jobless claims. Continued claims represent the number of valid claims filed by people who are still unable to return to work, according to a news release.
"Within the last four weeks, we've had as many claims as the entire year of 2019," Idaho Labor spokesperson Leah Reeder told KREM's Boise sister station KTVB last week. "We did have to add additional phone lines, additional servers, just so we can simply handle the amount of phone calls we are getting."
Last Friday, the state announced that it had started issuing over $63 million in payments through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. The program provides an additional $600 a week for claimants and are retroactive.
Tarwater said he's still waiting to see any kind of unemployment check.
Since starting to quarantine at his home, he said he and his wife have pinching pennies and relying heavily on the $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government. He added that he doesn't feel comfortable returning to work until the threat of coronavirus has passed.
"I might not get my first check until June. Who knows?" Tarwater said. "I can say that when I do get a hold of unemployment [employees], the people are real nice and polite. It's just very hard to get a hold of them."