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Coronavirus: State unemployment websites crash as applications surge

"Totally broken," tweeted one person about their area's unemployment website. Trump administration officials have warned unemployment could reach 20 percent due to the pandemic.
Image: Unemployment
People wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center, on March 17, 2020, in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP

Workers who have suddenly found themselves without a paycheck because of the growing coronavirus pandemic in the United States are now dealing with another frustration — state unemployment websites crashing because of high traffic.

From Oregon to New York and Washington, D.C., officials and Twitter users have highlighted the problem after the mass closing of restaurants, retail stores and other businesses as part of the effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Some states are responding by staggering the days on which people apply for unemployment benefits based on the first letter of applicants' last names.

A user whose Twitter account says she is from Columbus, Ohio, posted that the unemployment website in her area "can only handle about 3 people at a time apparently."

Others on Twitter vented about similar problems in New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

New York State waived its usual seven-day waiting period for applying for unemployment to ease the burden on people losing their jobs due to the crisis. But due to higher traffic, the website was briefly down on Monday, NBC New York reported, and commenters on the state Department of Labor's Facebook page were complaining of continuing problems Tuesday.

"I can't login or certify for benefits," one person wrote Tuesday. "Second day in a row. It currently says 'We are sorry, our systems are currently not available. Please come back later and try again.'"

To ease the problem, the agency said on Facebook that it designated certain days for people to file new claims online or by phone based on their last names.

"Filing later in the week will NOT delay your payments or affect the date of your claim, since all claims are effective on the Monday of the week in which they are filed," the state Labor Department said.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said at a press conference on Tuesday that the state saw a "record number of unemployment applications" on Monday, which caused the system to crash. He said it was since restored.

But New Jersey's labor commissioner, Robert Asaro-Angelo, asked residents for patience due to the "extraordinarily high" volume of calls and applications online.

“Applying online is easy and will save you precious time in receiving your benefits,” he said at the press conference. “But please know if you can’t get through over the phone or online, your claim will be backdated. So you won’t lose a day’s benefits that are due to you.”

Some workers in Oregon have had similar problems. According to The Register-Guard, the state's unemployment website went down briefly Monday shortly after Gov. Kate Brown announced that she was restricting restaurants and bars to carry-out and delivery service for the next four weeks.

The Oregon Employment Department addressed the issue in a tweet, urging residents having trouble with the online system to call the agency’s contact centers.

Like New York, Kentucky officials are trying to ease the strain on their unemployment departments and the headaches for workers by asking those seeking benefits to follow a schedule based on the first letter of their last name. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the state's phone line and website were not functioning Monday or Tuesday.

"If you have experienced job loss, we want to make sure you get the services you need. In order to serve you well, we are asking you to file your Unemployment Insurance claim on a specific day this week," Lt. Governor Jacqueline Coleman tweeted Wednesday.

The jams this week in seeking benefits came as Trump administration officials warned Senate Republicans that the coronavirus outbreak could cause the U.S. unemployment rate to reach 20 percent, according to two sources familiar with the discussion at a closed-door luncheon on Capitol Hill.