The number of idled workers trying to draw money from either a state or federal unemployment program continued to decline in South Carolina, but the state is still managing aid for tens of thousands of people who remain without jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly 196,500 residents were attempting to collect jobless benefits on Sept. 26, according to the most recent figures, which were released Thursday.
More than 71,000 of those claims were from people seeking to pull money from the state. Another 58,429 were claims filed by contractors, self-employed people and so-called gig workers who Congress temporarily covered earlier this year.
And the other 66,905 claims were from filers who had already used up their 20 weeks of state eligibility and were attempting to claim an extra 13 weeks of benefits provided by the federal government.
The continued decline in those numbers is a positive sign for South Carolina. It could indicate that more people are returning to work in the state as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic-induced recession.
The numbers, however, also clearly show that a big chunk of the workforce is still suffering more than six months after the coronavirus was first detected in South Carolina.
The latest numbers released by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce suggest that a significant number of residents continue to face new layoffs as well. Roughly 4,884 first-time claims were filed with the state agency last week.
The most money someone can collect through jobless benefits in South Carolina is $326 per week. But many are receiving less than that. The average unemployment recipient is trying to sustain themselves and their families on roughly $261 per week, according to DEW.
State officials are still in the process of passing out an extra $300 per week in federal benefits that President Donald Trump temporarily made available to millions of unemployed Americans. In recent weeks, DEW has disbursed roughly $246 million through that program to 214,075 claimants who were receiving benefits between August and early September.
At the same time, DEW has also been implementing new security measures to try to weed out potential fraud among the tens of thousands of claims it is processing every week.
Dan Ellzey, DEW's director, said those changes were needed to ensure identity thieves and other criminals weren't stealing from the state or federal government. The threat of fraud, he said, was particularly pronounced in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that Congress approved for contractors and gig workers earlier this year.
State officials believe the new security questionnaire they required every applicant to fill out is working, Ellzey told The Post and Courier on Wednesday. Most of the people accessing that new security screening are making it through and receiving their payments, Ellzey said.
But it has also had the effect of tripping up some unemployed individuals who have been receiving benefits for months. If people answer the new security questions incorrectly, their benefits are cut off and they are required to provide DEW with a drivers license or another form of identification.
The latest numbers show roughly 16,000 claimants didn't answer one of the security questions right, and have yet to provide DEW with the extra documentation.
Ellzey said his agency has done everything it can to inform people of how they can send in their identification, and it's tried to resolve problems with people not being able to access the new security questions on their iPhones, iPads and other Apple products.
It's sent out emails and robocalls to unemployment applicants informing them of how to navigate the process, Ellzey said.
If the remaining 16,000 claimants don't send in a copy of their drivers license, passport or other form of identification, DEW is going to assume that those accounts are fraudulent.