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Brooklynites say filing for unemployment is a full-time job during the coronavirus pandemic

Long wait times, dropped calls and a malfunctioning computer system from the 80s plague applicants

March 26, 2020 Mary Frost
Unemployment Insurance Services offices at 250 Schermerhorn St. in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Brooklynites who lost their jobs because of the novel coronavirus pandemic report that filing unemployment insurance claims is proving to be a herculean task, taking days of effort in many cases.

With so many trying to apply, the Department of Labor’s computers — some of which date from the Reagan administration — have become overwhelmed. Unemployment Insurance offices are closed, and it takes dozens, if not hundreds of attempts to get through using the the online or telephone call-in system.

In New York state, 80,334 people filed a claim the week ending March 21, according to figures released Thursday by DOL. The prior week, only 14,272 people filed claims. Across the country, a record-setting 3.3 million people filed for unemployment, up from 200,000 the previous week, the highest number by far in the country’s history.

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In New York City, these numbers likely represent only a fraction of those trying to sign up.

Aleck Venegas was furloughed last Wednesday from his lab technician job at a film processing lab in midtown. Venegas, who lives in the Brooklyn section of Ridgewood, told the Brooklyn Eagle that he tried to start the process last Thursday at around 9:30 a.m., “but by that point already the website was crashing before I could get to finish my claim,” he said.

“So my next thought was to try and do it over the phone,” he said. “I was successful up until I needed to complete the claim with a specialist. I was immediately disconnected while being transferred.”

Since he had finished half the claim over the phone, the option to file online disappeared, Venegas discovered. “There’s no way to start over and try online.”

Unemployment Insurance Services offices at 250 Schermerhorn St. in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
A sign at the Unemployment Insurance Services offices at 250 Schermerhorn St. says that the office is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Venegas said he called more than 200 times starting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. “I’m only connected to the automated menu once every 10 to 15 calls, and when I finally am able to navigate my way through the ‘complete an unfinished claim’ section, I’m told to hold for a specialist, only to be told that everyone is currently busy and to call back later! Then they hang up!”


“So it’s been a non-stop loop of calling, getting a busy signal, calling, maybe getting to the menu, getting hung up on, repeat until your eyes fall out,” he said.

On Wednesday, Venegas emailed the Eagle with some good news.

“After 350 calls today I was finally able to get through,” he said, adding, “The specialist was able to tell me that their system they were using is from 1985. Absolutely crazy right?!”

Unemployment Insurance Services offices at 250 Schermerhorn St. in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
The Unemployment Insurance Services office in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Error-page hell

Bushwick resident Mackenzie Faber was a server at a restaurant in the West Village until she was laid off on March 15.

“On the one hand it was a relief; I felt really vulnerable when I was at work, since it’s a small, cramped space where I’m touching used silverware and glassware, and management had been seating well beyond half capacity,” Faber said, referring to the directive from Mayor Bill de Blasio that was only in place for a few days before bars and restaurants were shuttered entirely. “On the other hand, not knowing when I would have income again was daunting.“

Faber’s boyfriend was in the same boat, so they both went through the “how-to” page on the Department of Labor’s website and started their online applications.

“Unfortunately, the website was not equipped to handle that much traffic; when I tried to submit my work history and personal information, I got an ‘error’ page. After that, I had even less luck and more error pages,” Faber said.

“My boyfriend called me that night and informed me that a friend had better luck calling the office directly.” So she tried logging in with her phone early the next morning but hit another ‘error’ page. Then she tried her laptop, but the site didn’t recognize her password. Frustratingly, after trying a few more times she was blocked. Faber tried calling using her phone again and still couldn’t get through.

“After I finished the first portion of filing my claim, the automated voice on the line said that I now had to speak to a representative to finish filing. It said it would connect me to a representative, but then the line went dead,” she said.

Faber said she repeated this procedure Thursday (19 calls), Friday (26 calls) and Saturday on the phone and on the computer. The online system no longer recognized her password, she said.

On the plus side, Farber said, “They’ve been updating it regularly with more information which is helpful and reassuring, and have extended their hours.” Also, now her boyfriend has successfully managed to register.

On the negative side, “I know they’re swamped and doing their best, but I’m losing hope. If they’re already so backed up a mere fifteen minutes after opening the office that they can’t take my call, I feel like I’ll never be able to get in,” she said.

When Broadway goes dark

Amanda Whidden worked as support staff for a Broadway show until all of the Great White Way was shutdown by the COVID-19 outbreak. “Everybody was laid off when the shows closed down,” Whidden said. “Hopefully, my job will come back when Broadway does, but who knows how long that will be and what kind of shape the industry will be in when it does.”

She hit similar obstacles in applying for unemployment insurance, but seems to have gotten through a little faster than others.

At various times throughout her application, she got timed-out error messages and was booted off, she said. “Then I’d have to log in and start from scratch. Twice I got to step 9 out of 10,” before the website quit on her, she said.

“I finally did get it done, though, and I got a confirmation code that it’s all good, so fingers crossed,” Whidden said.

Don’t despair, DOL improvements on the way

DOL spokesperson Deanna Cohen told the Eagle that the agency has been bombarded with applications. Last week when the crisis was just starting, DOL saw “over a 1,000 percent increase in claims in some areas across the state,” she said. The agency received more than 1.7 million calls and 2.3 million web attempts between March 16 and March 21.

DOL is now working “around the clock and has streamlined the process,” she said.

Those filing for benefits need not fear if they don’t have immediate success, she added. “Even if New Yorkers do not get through right away, they will receive their full benefit back to the date of unemployment.”

“We have added servers and increased bandwidth; dedicated more than 700 staff and are adding 65 more; and it is important to stress, following the newly implemented filing system will help dispense traffic more evenly if all New Yorkers adhere to it,” Cohen said, referring to an alphabetical system the department implemented to spread out the incoming tide of new applications.

In addition, the $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill just approved by the Senate and now on its way to the House will send more money to state unemployment departments for system upgrades.

The spending bill will also increase unemployment insurance for four months by $600 a week in many cases, insuring that laid off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months, according to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. The bill will also extend benefits to those who don’t usually qualify, such as freelancers and gig workers, along with furloughed workers like Venegas.

Filing for benefits is now based on the first letter of the applicant’s last name. People whose last name begins with A through F should file on Monday; G through N on Tuesday; and O through Z on Wednesday. If you missed your day, you can file on Thursday or Friday. Filing later in the week will not delay payments or affect the date of your claim, since all claims are effective on the Monday of the week in which they are filed.

To apply for benefits, you must log in to the New York Department of Labor website at labor.ny.gov or call the claims center at 888-209-8124.

One tip for getting through the system more successfully comes from Robert Griswold, who discovered, after reading the fine print, that DOL’s ancient computer system was designed to work with Internet Explorer and Netscape. He switched from Chrome to a contemporary version of Internet Explorer and “was pleased to find that the difficulties with the site stopped,” the Queens Eagle reports.


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