In the weeks after an EF4 tornado ripped through the state on April 27, local officials estimated more than 50 businesses in Mayflower and Vilonia -- the hardest hit areas in the tornado's path -- were destroyed or severely damaged.
But as of Friday, only 20 people in the three counties most affected by the tornado had applied for disaster unemployment assistance through the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, and only five of those applications had been approved. Two had been denied and 13 claims were still pending because of missing documents or incomplete applications, according to department spokesman Becky Heflin.
Officials say June 5 is the deadline to apply for the benefits. And they want people to know that there are two sets of forms that could be confused -- one for regular unemployment and the other for disaster-related unemployment.
In Vilonia, Mayor James Firestone said, 23 of the city's businesses were destroyed and dozens more were damaged. Firestone and other city leaders said the city's businesses need assistance, but they've heard business owners say they're either wary of filing for the unemployment benefits or they've been turned away.
"What was going to be available didn't seem like it was the same thing we had been told about when the department first got here," Firestone said. "I had business people later telling me they weren't going to apply for the disaster unemployment because it was like regular unemployment and their unemployment insurance was going to go up if they applied. That wasn't what we were told in the beginning. So there's a connection that's just not being made."
Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland said unemployment benefits might not be as necessary as other disaster assistance in his city, which has worked to help almost all of the affected businesses get up and running again. Nearly a month after the tornado, Holland said Mayflower RV, which was mostly destroyed, was one of the few businesses if not the only one still closed.
"I think that would probably be our reason for not having more people applying for unemployment help," he said. "The county has been doing amazing work helping us clean up debris. They're doing three sweeps. And we made it a priority at the city to get the electricity and water back on and to help these businesses get up and running as quickly as we could."
Vilonia Chamber of Commerce executive Jill Bonnema said some of the professionals who lost their businesses, such as real estate agents or physical therapists, had been told they weren't eligible for unemployment benefits.
Heflin said in an e-mail Friday afternoon that the business owners talking to Bonnema had bad information. She said of the five claims already approved, three of those people are self-employed professionals.
When the federal government approved the disaster declaration for White, Pulaski and Faulkner counties, people who would not normally qualify for unemployment, including self-employed business owners, became eligible for disaster unemployment assistance.
Heflin said people who file claims for disaster unemployment assistance must first apply for state unemployment insurance benefits. She said in her e-mail that she could not say for sure, but those business owners telling Bonnema they've been denied were likely turned away by the state unemployment insurance program and either had not applied or were awaiting approval for the disaster unemployment program.
She said of the two denied claims, one person was denied disaster unemployment because "the claimant had lost employment prior to the disaster rather than as a result of the disaster." The second claimant was denied disaster unemployment because that person qualified for regular unemployment benefits, she said.
Heflin sent out a news release to remind people of the June 5 deadline to apply for disaster unemployment assistance. She said the program does not affect the state's unemployment insurance trust fund or the department's budget because the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays administrative costs and the benefits paid out to eligible applicants.
Firestone said the deadline reminder was needed, and he appreciated the department setting up a table to help people apply for unemployment in the days after the tornado, but he hopes they'll return and offer additional assistance.
"I would like for them to come back and make sure that people are applying for what they need, and are applying for the right program. I really feel like they're here to help us, we just need to make the right connection," he said.
Meanwhile, Bonnema has set up a storeroom of donated office furniture and donated supplies that might not be covered by insurance policies to help the Vilonia businesses get back on their feet.
"It's something tangible. They can come in pick out a desk and some chairs, and that's something they can physically touch, just carry it out," she said. "A lot of businesses are waiting to find out about what they're insurance will cover, they're waiting on small-business loans. We found out those loans require the owners to build back pretty much the same, which isn't always possible. We have one business owner who wants to expand, but the loan won't cover that."
Bonnema said businesses need an explanation of what grants, loans and other money are available, and what restrictions are in place on all of those sources of money.
"We just need to make this as easy as possible for them to stay, to rebuild and to stay," Firestone said. "The economy in small cities is already so delicate. You add something like this, and it's going to be incredibly hard for them to get back on their feet. We need them to."
Firestone said he's applied for a disaster assistance loan that would allow the city to use the money to operate if there's a gap in their sales tax and property tax money because of the lost houses and businesses.
Meanwhile, Holland said, he's been in contact with all of Faulkner County's legislative representatives hoping they can find a funding source to help fill that gap while businesses and the cities recover. Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said the office has been exploring options to make up for that city funding source, but no details had been decided as of Friday.
Metro on 05/26/2014