$20,000 in Credit Card Debt and a Negative Bank Account: The Cost of One Woman's Wait for Unemployment Benefits During Covid-19

Jeanne Flynn
  • Jeanne Flynn lost her job at a New Jersey restaurant in March. It took months to start receiving unemployment benefits, and she's still trying to access more than $14,000 in back pay.
  • As a result, she used credit cards to cover basic needs for her family.
  • Her story illustrates the financial stress the unemployment system has caused thousands of workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jeanne Flynn used to worry about money. But never like this.

Flynn, 34, lost her restaurant job in March as the coronavirus pandemic raged.

Months of waiting for unemployment benefits and little savings forced Flynn, who has two young children and is still out of work, to use credit cards to live.

Nine months later, the damage has been substantial: $20,000 in new debt, a negative bank-account balance and a plummeting credit score, records show.

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"Everything went onto a credit card," said Flynn, who lives in Beachwood, New Jersey. "It's a lot of small stuff that added up to a lot of big stuff.

"I can't even look at [the balance]," she added. "It makes me sick."

Flynn and her husband, from whom she's separated, owe their landlord two months of rent. Flynn gave up her car and is subsisting on food stamps. Childcare duties make it tough to find another job, especially when she doesn't have the money for a babysitter.

"I'm to the point where I don't know what to do," Flynn said.

System under stress

Flynn is one of millions of Americans who've fallen through the cracks in the country's safety net for the unemployed since the start of the pandemic, which caused joblessness unseen since the Great Depression almost a century ago.

State labor agencies buckled under a deluge of applications for jobless benefits in the early days of the economic crisis.

More than 6 million people filed for state unemployment insurance during two separate weeks in the early spring alone — six times the prior weekly record set in the early 1980s, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Extreme delays permeated the system. In January, about 93% of people were paid within three weeks of applying for benefits — the typical barometer for a timely payment. By September, that share had plummeted to about 60%, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

"This situation is very new," said Sarah Hymowitz, chief attorney at Legal Services of New Jersey, who represents low-income clients in unemployment matters. "We've never had this level of intensity."

States have largely recovered and are getting a handle on their backlogs, according to unemployment experts. But, with roughly 20 million people still collecting benefits nationwide, workers are still running into problems.

About 1 in 5 people paid in September had waited more than two months for that check to arrive, according to the Labor Department.

Months of waiting may spell disaster for those like Flynn who have few financial resources at their disposal.

"Without that cushion, when an emergency like a pandemic or job loss or wage loss strikes, the fall is immediate and precipitous and it can be impossible to recover from," said Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University and an eviction expert.

Those who lost employment income during the Covid-19 pandemic have been much more likely to use credit cards or loans, borrow from friends or family, and reallocate money from deferred bills to meet regular spending needs than those who didn't lose their jobs, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Dead end

Flynn quickly ran into a dead end when applying for benefits in New Jersey, after losing her waitressing and bartending job around St. Patrick's Day.

The online system wouldn't let her input information to begin a claim, she said. Jammed phone lines made it impossible to reach a state labor representative.

Flynn finally reached someone in July — four months later. A disability claim had prevented her from applying for unemployment, she learned from a phone representative.

However, it appears that claim was incorrectly marked as being "open" in the state's administrative system.

Flynn had received temporary disability pay from New Jersey during pregnancy with her second child, between May and July 2019, according to records from the state's Division of Temporary Disability Insurance. She returned to work in September that year, those records show.

To receive jobless aid, an individual must be able and available to work. Since someone filing for disability is unable to work, that person is generally ineligible for unemployment benefits, Hymowitz said.

Flynn started receiving unemployment benefits in August, after the error in her file was corrected. She's been getting $181 a week, after tax, from the state.

New Jersey is one of a handful of states to offer both temporary disability and unemployment insurance, making it one of the most worker-friendly states in the U.S., according to Angela Delli-Santi, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Labor.

Flynn's situation, whereby an individual toggles between disability and unemployment benefits, is unique and may affect less than half of 1% of the state's total unemployment applicants, Delli-Santi said. (Around 1.5 million workers have become eligible for jobless benefits in New Jersey during the pandemic, she said.)

"A few claimants with the most complicated cases — such as switching from disability to unemployment — had to wait longer than they — or we — would have liked for an agent to intervene," Delli-Santi said, acknowledging initial agency delays in fielding phone calls.

$14,000 of benefits

But Flynn is still owed back pay for five months of missed benefits, she said. That would include four months' worth of a $600-a-week boost federal lawmakers offered in the CARES Act relief law.

She's been trying to access that pay since August, but the process has been painfully slow, she said. In total, Flynn would get more than $14,000 before tax if granted back pay to mid-March.

"Whenever we become aware of such claims — and, I'm pleased to report they are few and far between — we work diligently to make these claimants whole, and get them any and all benefits they are owed as quickly as possible," Delli-Santi said.


Many of Hymowitz's clients have had similar issues collecting back pay from earlier in the crisis, the attorney said.

"Unfortunately, her case is not unique," said Hymowitz, after hearing a description of Flynn's issue. "We're seeing a lot of single parents with children who aren't able to provide, racking up tons of debt, being threatened with eviction."

Even the benefits Flynn has been receiving since August are lower than they'd otherwise be, since cash tips aren't reflected in the pay her employer reports to the state labor agency. She makes the state minimum wage for tipped employees, $3.13 an hour.

In some ways, Flynn feels fortunate. Her husband has been helping with some bills, like a $300 minimum monthly credit card payment, and offers health insurance through his job. Flynn recently moved in with her mom. A recent health issue makes it tough for her mom to help watch the kids, though.

"The last eight months have been a nightmare," Flynn said.

"I cry at the drop of a hat," she said. "I feel bad for my children.

"It makes me feel like a bad mom," Flynn added. "It's generally put strain on every relationship in my life."

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