Out of work because of coronavirus, struggling to file for unemployment

Some dial their state offices hundreds of times while others are met with frozen websites.

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By Tim Stelloh and Christine Nguyen

They live in disparate parts of the country but share the same experience: struggling to file for unemployment under the wave of coronavirus shutdowns.

Some dial their state offices hundreds of times, only to reach automated instructions that end with the line disconnecting. Others log onto websites that crash before they can file an application. Some endure the haltingly slow process unsure if they even qualify for the benefits.

From New York to Florida and Nevada to Michigan, states are grappling with millions of newly unemployed and furloughed workers, a situation that led to a $2 trillion bill last month that sets aside hundreds of billions of dollars in jobless benefits for people who lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic.

But chronic underfunding and aging technology have left states vulnerable to a crisis that resulted last week in a record 6.6 million unemployment claims.

“States are having a real problem right now,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank. “We are in a situation that would be an unbelievable stress test for even the most equipped systems — literally, a 1,500 percent increase in more than two weeks in the filers.

"It's a situation that these programs never expected that they would find themselves in. But here we are.”

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In New York, the state Department of Labor experienced an unprecedented spike in call volume and website traffic, a spokeswoman said. Between March 23-28, the department recorded 8.2 million calls, an increase of 16,000 percent over a typical week. The department’s online filing system saw a 900 percent spike, from 350,000 visits to 3.4 million.

To handle the deluge, the department reassigned hundreds of staff members, added servers to expand the website’s capacity and extended the call center’s hours, among other measures. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologized to New Yorkers, saying in a news conference that the system wasn’t operating as “smoothly” as he wanted it to.

“It’s compounding people’s stress,” he said.

Among those people is Sharon Gucker, a laid-off substitute teacher and a single mother of three boys. Gucker, 51, learned March 16 from her Long Island school district that she would have to file for unemployment. She tried applying online but gave up after a day and a half when the department’s website kept crashing. She began dialing the department, cycling through a series of automated prompts until reaching the point where she needed to complete her application.

For this, a human was required. But no one was available until March 20, so she kept calling. Some 150 to 200 calls later, someone finally answered and Gucker finished the process. But while trying to file direct deposit paperwork online this week, she was locked out of the form after entering her mother’s maiden name. Calls to try to correct the problem ended as before — with a disconnected line.

Another New Yorker, Lori Kaplan, 64, estimated she dialed the department more than 700 times after shuttering her wardrobe supply company in Manhattan on March 16. Finally, she reached out to a local lawmaker and heard back from the labor department Wednesday. By then, Kaplan had applied for a federal loan program that would cover her and several employees. But it would also disqualify her from receiving unemployment benefits.

She's unsure if she will qualify for the loan, though she’s hopeful.

“Not having to call UI all day is definitely a relief,” she said in a text message, referring to unemployment insurance. “What will be of my business, I have no idea. Everything right now seems like a crapshoot.”

In Brooksville, Florida, Lenora O’Berry, 72, was furloughed March 19 from her job filling online orders for a retail chain, and she was unsure whether she would qualify for unemployment. She tried filing March 24, but the site kept crashing, forcing her to start over each time. Her application was finally accepted March 31 at 11:47 p.m., she said.

To meet a crush of new claims, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity expanded call center hours, reassigned dozens of workers and sought to hire 100 more, NBC affiliate WESH reported.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who represents the Orlando area, said he has heard from dozens of constituents with stories like O’Berry’s, and in his view, Florida’s unemployment process points to deeper problems. Under former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, unemployment benefits shrank to some of the lowest in the country, from $7,150 over 26 weeks to $3,300 over 12 weeks, Smith said.

Yet the website, which the company Deloitte overhauled under Scott’s tenure for $77 million, according to the Tampa Bay Times, had not been updated to remove an unemployment rule instituted under him but suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 20: To qualify for assistance, recipients have to prove they’re searching for a job.

“It’s a disaster,” Smith said. “It’s shameful what the state is doing.”

The Department of Economic Opportunity and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Scott, now a U.S. senator, said in a statement that he had helped ensure unemployment benefits aided those who “truly needed the assistance.”

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“As governor, he made investments to ensure the system worked and Florida’s Unemployment Insurance program is funded at record levels thanks to reforms under Gov. Scott, meaning more Florida families can receive the help they need,” the spokeswoman said.

In other states, people desperate for help pleaded with their governors, President Donald Trump and even news networks on social media. In Nevada, where unemployment claims ballooned by 3,000 percent between January and March, according to a report published by the financial site WalletHub, one person tweeted Wednesday to Gov. Steve Sisolak that she had been trying for 10 days to reach the state unemployment office.

That morning alone, she had called 38 times, she said.

“I don’t know how to get a hold of them,” she tweeted. “Please help.”

A spokesman for Sisolak did not respond to a message seeking comment.

In Michigan, where jobless claims rose by 2,200 percent, according to WalletHub, the state’s unemployment site appeared to crash for several hours Tuesday. Potential applicants took to the state labor department’s Facebook page to post tips on how to file (“I did mine at 3 a.m. It went straight through”), to complain (“The phone number is not working. I don’t care what anyone says.”) and to seek help by using screenshots (“Does anyone know why I’m getting this error message?”)

Jeff Donofrio, director of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, said in a statement Friday that the state Unemployment Insurance Agency "continues to work around the clock to provide emergency financial assistance to working families."

"We appreciate the continued patience residents have shown and are committed to making sure every eligible Michigander who files an unemployment claim receives their benefits," he said.

Shierholz, with the Economic Policy Institute, had a message for would-be beneficiaries.

“Just persist,” she said. “You are eligible for these benefits. It's extremely important, not just for you and your family, but if there's an avalanche of people who then can't pay their rent, can't pay their mortgage, can't pay their car payments, that creates even worse ripple effects in the economy that makes this crisis even more so.”