Effingham Co. woman’s unemployment claim raises questions about available relief for high-risk individuals

WSAV NOW

EDEN, Ga. (WSAV) – An Effingham County woman’s unemployment claim is raising questions about the economic relief options available to high-risk individuals unable to work.

Rebecka Hess has been undergoing treatment for stage 3 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since last spring.

The former Kroger manager noticed a mass on her neck in February and immediately went to the doctor, where she later received the diagnosis.

The single mother began chemotherapy and later radiation treatments, forcing her to take two medical leaves from work.

“Right now, they’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to give your body a little bit of a break,'” said Hess. “But then, I have another test soon and we might have to do this all over again.”

The pandemic raged on while her treatments continue, preventing her from working at her old job at Kroger because of how high-risk she is.

Hess applied for unemployment in August and received a letter a month later explaining her benefits if she were approved.

She went on for over four months not hearing anything before she reached out to WSAV NOW.

At the very end of January, she finally heard back from someone at the Department of Labor who asked her for other necessary documents.

“It’s been a nightmare,” she said.

The main requirement for someone seeking unemployment insurance (UI), is they must be physically able and available to work.

What makes her case unique is that she isn’t, and therefore at first glance, wouldn’t be eligible for basic UI.

So what are the options for her and others who can’t work in public because they’re high-risk?

Available options for the unemployed at high-risk

Director of Communications Kersha Cartwright at the Georgia Department of Labor told WSAV NOW that Hess’s case presents a lot of gray areas.

As said before, she wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment because you have to be physically able and available.

“[But] we cannot say for certain about eligibility of those who were separated due to medical reasons,” said Cartwright.

She says it’s extremely important for people filing for unemployment to present the necessary documents from a medical professional if they cannot work because of health concerns presented by the pandemic.

A doctor’s note determines what type of program you may be eligible for, but Cartwright says there are a lot of variables to the adjudication process.

Some of the factors to be considered include:

  • Did the applicant provide all employer’s requested medical documentation timely?
  • Did the applicant make employer aware of her medical condition?
  • Did the applicant request an extension for medical leave?

In other words, the proper medical documentation is key in order to be eligible for any type of UI.

If an applicant does not qualify for unemployment insurance, there’s always a possibility that a person may qualify for pandemic unemployment assistance or PUA.

PUA provides unemployment benefits for up to 39 weeks for people who typically aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance.

Still, eligibility for either program is determined on a case-by-case basis.

The road ahead for Hess

Hess has been picking up a paintbrush a lot more now that she’s at home resting between treatments.

She’s always loved to paint and says she finally has the time to do it again.

Times have been really tough and the stress does get to her, but she says she’s just grateful for the generosity she’s received from those in the community.

“I would not have survived, I probably would’ve been homeless by now unless I’ve gotten people’s help,” she said.

After this experience, she says she wants to do as much as she can to give back to those in need when she’s able to.

She also said she’s frustrated not just for the hold up on her claim, but for the countless others who may be having a worse time at it than she has.

“Yeah I’ve got cancer, but what about all those people who don’t have cancer and are going through other trials? I think if we come together as a people, it would be so much better,” she said.

At the time of publication, her claim is still under review.

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