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Connecticut is weeks behind on benefits for self-employed

On March 27, the CARES Act was signed into law. This act allocated funding called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, to provide unemployment benefits for the first time to self-employed, contract, gig and other workers not eligible for regular unemployment.

For this group this financial support was vital. The steps taken to combat the COVID-19 public health crisis resulted in thousands of these individuals seeing their livelihoods and income disappear overnight However, this new PUA benefit presented a real challenge to state departments of labor. The challenge faced by Connecticut was especially pronounced, as the department’s computer system is over 40 years old. Governor Lamont had wisely commissioned its modernization, but that process was not yet complete and the state, in an effort to pay out the new benefits, set about recruiting COBOL programmers to make the necessary changes. (For the young among you, COBOL is a 60-year-old programming language.) The Department of Labor indicated it would be some time before the system would be able to pay out these benefits, so desperately needed by the residents of Connecticut. 

On April 7, I read in The Day that Rhode Island was accepting applications for PUA. I immediately contacted the governor’s office, asking if the Connecticut Department of Labor was consulting with their Rhode Island counterparts. I was hearing from my constituents every day how urgently they needed this financial lifeline. My question was referred to the DOL legislative liaison, who offered to ask the unemployment insurance benefits director “to please reach out to his counterpart in that state in order to gather more information about their PUA implementation process.” 

That was six weeks ago. I never heard whether such inquiries were made. Meanwhile the Connecticut labor department repeatedly missed deadlines for completion. Mid-April became April 30 became “now we have the first part of the system ready, but part two won’t be ready for another week.” That was May 6. I am contacted daily by constituents who still have not received any payment, from the contract cleaner who is down to the last $300 in his checking account to the yoga instructor now relying on food banks. 

How did Rhode Island, our neighboring state, accomplish such a quick turnaround? They created a new cloud-based, secure, scalable website and worked with RIPL, a Rhode Island-based non-profit, to stand up their site in just 10 days, making them the first state in the country to process PUA applications. In fact, there is a full description of how this can be done in one day on the website of US Digital Response. USDR is a volunteer-run, nonpartisan service offering free access to skilled expertise for local governments who need support. I add, I am by no means a computer expert; I was able to use a simple Google search to locate this information.

Governor Lamont has repeatedly stressed how closely he is working with his neighboring governors to apply best practices and consistent guidelines. Indeed, he cited the practices of neighboring states New York and Massachusetts when asked about his decision to sign a $2 million no-bid contract with the Boston Consulting Group to guide Connecticut’s reopening strategy and disband the 43-person expert panel tasked with overseeing that reopening. Josh Geballe, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, maintains that federal dollars should over the cost of the contract. Meanwhile, that $2 million could buy 460,000 N-95 masks, 333,00 surgical gowns, or five million pairs of medical gloves, PPE desperately needed in our hospitals and nursing homes. Apparently it is worth talking to neighboring states when signing no-bid contracts but not to seek their advice on how to help our struggling residents. At the very least, why has no one at the Department of Labor been held accountable for the delays in paying out PUA when the (free) answer was right next door?

Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, represents the 37th district.

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