PUA discontinues benefits, requires repayment from some Skagway businesses

By Melinda Munson

Becky McGill, owner and operator of Beyond Skagway Tours, applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) in April 2020 when it became clear that COVID-19 would stop cruise ships from berthing in Skagway.

Normally, McGill makes enough money from May to October to support herself through the winter, but with no income and the cold season looming, McGill was relieved when she was approved for benefits.

Designed for self-employed workers, independent contractors and gig workers, PUA kicked off in April 2020. Since McGill didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment, the program was her respite from financial ruin, or so she thought.                                                                                                                                            McGill was dismayed when after checking her online PUA account, it showed she owed the state $14,000 and was denied further benefits. According to McGill, she never received a letter or any explanation. The amount due was suddenly reduced to $4,600, again with no explanation.

“I’m just tired of fighting it,” said McGill who spent countless hours on the phone trying to reach PUA. When she did manage to connect, they had no answers.

It felt like “just kick them while they’re down,” McGill said. 

Owner and operator of Skagway Private Tours, Sherry Corrington, is having a similar experience. She was the first business owner in town to learn that her benefits had been withdrawn and she had a balance due.

According to PUA, she owes them $2,600. It’s money that Corrington can’t spare. She now relies on Skagway’s food bank and was devastated when her PUA payments suddenly ceased in October.

“That’s not living. You’re constantly being nagged and burdened by begging for this money,” Corrington said.

She thinks the PUA program doesn’t account for Skagway’s unique business model where owners typically work face to face with visitors during the tourist season, and spend the rest of the year planning and preparing for the next season.

Corrington said PUA’s denial of benefits left her feeling “betrayed and sabotaged.”

She reached out to Sen. Jesse Kiehl’s office and described his response as supportive.

In a town hall meeting, Kiehl said Corrington’s woes were “the tip of the iceberg.”

“We’ve had more specific cases from Skagway than per capita,” he said. 

PUA appeal hearings begin this month, with Corrington’s scheduled for March 16. She thinks the appeal would have been pushed back if not for Kiehl.

Thomas Pickerel, owner and operator of Skagway-Yukon Custom Van Tours, also finds himself in an untenable situation. Like McGill and Corrington, he was forced to refund tour deposits when visits were canceled. 

Expecting a normal season, Pickerel spent his deposits on dental work.

“…I had already spent it getting my teeth fixed, so my tour guide smile was improved,” Pickerel said.

His tour guide smile faded further when his PUA benefits stopped and suddenly he owed the state thousands of dollars.

“I was informed by PUA that I had to repay $5,962 since my business was determined to be ‘seasonal’ and our cruise ship season for 2020 was supposed to run from April 23 to early October 2020,” Pickerel said.

McGill, Corrington and PickereI all say they provided thorough and honest answers to PUA representatives and on all applications.

“I did not attempt to commit fraud with PUA,” Pickerel said.

There are approximately twelve individuals in Skagway who openly discuss owing money to PUA. If you would like to speak to The Skagway News about your experience with PUA, please email melinda@skagwaynews.com. 

PUA did not respond for comment by deadline.