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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — As hospitals are preparing for a surge in COVID-19 patients, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development is seeing their own surge of unemployment claims due to the crisis.

From March 21-28, 120,331 Hoosiers filed for unemployment. The week before that, there were 53,608 claims made. For comparison, neither of the last two weeks in March 2019 had more than 2,000 filings.

The phone lines at the Department of Workforce Development have been so busy, some people are getting messages that say the line is out of service. Others complain of long wait times that take hours.

“We’re working really hard to keep up, we know it’s important to people,” said Indiana Department of Workforce Development’s Josh Richardson. “For people who haven’t had a paycheck in a few weeks, I get that this can’t come soon enough.”

The department says they are working on solutions to address the massive amount of calls and process the unprecedented amount of claims. Like many Americans, their employees are also working from home while trying to handle the workload.

“We’ve increased our staff, and we’ve increased the number of people who are answering calls. We’ve made sure we have a greater bandwidth on our internet system put in place,” said the department’s commissioner Fred Payne during a daily press briefing with Governor Eric Holcomb.

“We also have a new system we’re working on in terms of how people can apply for unemployment insurance, and that is the over the phone system. That should take care of some of the backlog.”

These efforts began days if not weeks ago, however, officials warn the change won’t be noticed overnight.

“It’s not the case that we can just put someone in the chair and immediately get them on the phone to answer these questions, it does take some training,” Richardson said. “Even though we’re taking the steps now to hopefully provide some help in this process, we’re not really going to see the benefit of that for a few weeks out.”

Many of the callers have questions about the stimulus package recently signed by President Trump. The stimulus calls for three big changes. It adds $600 to weekly benefits, extends the length of benefits by 13 weeks, and also allows self-employed or “gig” workers to be eligible.

However, the department is asking people not to call with those questions because they don’t have the answers.

“We won’t have the answers until the U.S. Department of Labor gets them to us, and even then it will be a matter of setting up a process to take those claims, knowing what the eligibility requirements are, and processing them,” Richardson said. “So we’re working really hard on it, but we just don’t have those answers today.”

Richardson says it’s important to note these benefits will be paid by the federal government, not with state money. In other words, Indiana’s current system of filing for unemployment will have to change. That might mean creating new forms or an entirely new system.

“I think you’ll see some states potentially struggle with this for months,” Richardson said. “I’m confident we’ll beat that, but it is going to take a while and people should set their expectations accordingly.”

One of the biggest challenges is finding a way to confirm wages for self-employed workers, who are now eligible. The current system uses information from employers to determine that information, so those self-employed workers who have begun to file for unemployment are being denied for the time being.

“We’re going to do this as fast as we can, but this is not a program people should expect to be 2 to 3 weeks away,” Richardson said.

There will have to be another step added in for self-employed workers, but it doesn’t exist yet. Richardson says for now the best advice for those workers is to regularly check for updates.

“It’s a federal program that we’re going to administer, and they haven’t given us the instructions on how to administer it yet,” Richardson said. “I know they are working quickly, we’ve had conversations with them already, but that guidance is still not available.”

For those who are eligible for the current state unemployment benefits, Richardson expects the 21-day timeline from filing to getting payment to still be the case.

“We know how critical it is, we’re not taking that lightly,” Richardson said. “It’s a very serious issue to us and we’re doing everything we can to churn out those payments on time.”