When Alyssa Joy Claffey, 37, began having a fever, hot flashes and fatigue on March 13, she attributed the symptoms as side effects of Tamoxifen, an estrogen receptor blocker that prevents estrogen from attaching to cancer cells and making them grow. She was just shy of six weeks out of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for the metastatic cancer in her left breast.
Claffey’s symptoms developed severely the next week. On March 19, 2020—a year to the day after she was diagnosed with her cancer—she was admitted to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum. There, she was tested for the novel coronavirus. Her result came back positive. The virus was attacking her left lung, the same side of her body that had been dosed with radiation to fight the cancer.
Within exactly one year, Claffey had been diagnosed, fought and survived breast cancer, only to contract COVID-19. But, she said, it wasn’t until she had begun to emerge from the fog of COVID that her biggest battle began: Dealing with the Idaho Department of Labor to receive unemployment funds.
“By the time I applied, everyone else in the state of Idaho had applied,” Claffey said.
She began filing for unemployment on March 29, and as of Wednesday, July 29, has not received a single dime from the state. According to Claffey, her application for unemployment was approved and the state currently owes her more than $5,000 and an explanation as to why her second application—which she was forced to re-file after she was locked out of her account for two weeks—was denied, although her circumstances have not changed.
Claffey was approved for seven weeks of unemployment on June 24, for March 29 through May 16, she told the Express this week. Her money was on the way to the bank account she shared with her boyfriend, but when the money arrived, the bank denied the direct deposit because the funds were in her name, and not the primary name on the account. Claffey’s funds were returned to the Idaho Department of Labor and now are in a state of limbo, with IDOL’s website reflecting that the funds have been dispersed, but Claffey maintaining that she hasn’t received any money.
The process itself was hard enough, Claffey said, and now she faces eviction from the studio space where she teaches music, because she hasn’t been able to pay her rent for June and July.
“We shouldn’t be making it this hard,” Claffey said of the unemployment system.
In the last several weeks, she has spoken to a total of 14 IDOL representatives. She has spent hours on hold, followed by up to five hours speaking with one employee or the next. Each, she said, gave her a different response to where her money is and when it will arrive. Because the money was reverted back to the state, it will now be dispersed to Claffey through a bank card, which will be mailed to her. When that card will arrive is still unclear. For Claffey, the timing of that money could mean saving her music studio—and with it, a part of her income going forward.
Claffey received the eviction notice on Monday and was told she had three days to either pay her back due rent or get out. Up until now, Claffey had been working with her landlord, communicating her situation and sending what money she could to him, managing to stay current on her rent through May thanks to grants she received from the Blaine County Charitable Fund and St. Thomas Emergency Community Fund. Over the last few weeks, she has returned to teaching some music classes, but the side effects of COVID have lingered. The disease left her completely bedridden for eight weeks. Months later, the brain fog, fatigue and some of the lung pain persist.
Today, Claffey continues to wait for answers from IDOL.
According to the last representative she spoke with on Thursday, the bank card company tasked with sending her the funds has not gotten her account information from the state. She is also waiting for a call from a Department of Labor claims specialist, which could take weeks, to help her untangle the money from the current web of red tape.
Due to privacy concerns, IDOL cannot comment on specific claims, according to a spokesperson for the state department who responded to a request for comment from the Express regarding Claffey’s case on Tuesday. The spokesperson did say, however, that wait times to speak with a representative had decreased to minutes and that call center staff have the ability to unlock client accounts since the call center was implemented on May 29. Claffey agreed that since then the call wait time has been short, but the agents on the other end of the line tend to give conflicting information about her account status.
In a press release dated July 22, the department stated it had cleared 42,000 unemployment insurance claims that had been pending since June 6.
“Issues that remain now are more complicated—such as working to prevent identify theft—and awaiting additional information from claimants or previous employers,” the IDOL statement reads. “A higher percentage of new claims are being filed each week than ever before. Approximately 3,800 claims were filed each week on average in 2009—the height of the Great Recession. Currently, the four-week average is approximately 5,000 claims.”
That’s little solace for Claffey, who called her experience dealing with the unemployment system more challenging than fighting both cancer and COVID.
“I’m told to just keep waiting, just keep waiting,” Claffey said. “There’s so many hoops to jump through.”
By Wednesday, Claffey could be evicted from her music studio, located between Backwoods Mountain Sports and Grumpy’s in Ketchum, but for her no challenge is too steep.
“I will always laugh in the face of obstacles,” she said. That, to Claffey, was one of the “blessings of cancer”: honing her ability to keep pushing forward, and to look for silver linings.
Claffey spent November to January undergoing an eight-week radiation treatment in Boise. She spent her mornings reading aloud to her mom as she cleaned the kitchen and got to better know her stepfather. That time, she said, was a welcome gift from her treatment. Her perspective on life shifted, from “go, go, go” toward trying to use the “universe-mandated break” to heal her body and her soul. Now, she’s writing a book, titled “Songs That Build Me,” sharing her story of surviving cancer—and then COVID—with the help of the music that fuels her soul, sustains her livelihood and worked to her advantage overcoming both obstacles.
Looking back, the year wasn’t all bad, she says now. Last summer, she reached a career goal, performing with her band at the Sawtooth Valley Gathering after her first round of chemotherapy. She found, more than ever, her purpose—“my unshakable why,” she calls it: to be a performer, a teacher and a reflection of the battles she has fought and won.
“Everything happens for a reason, so long as you can learn from it,” Claffey said.