(TNS) — New York’s website to sign up for unemployment benefits still doesn’t work.
One year after hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers jammed the state’s system with new claims, the state continues to leave people stranded without benefits for weeks and months.
There’s a new pileup as people reach the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus shutdown that put them out of work last March. The state requires some people to reapply, but not others. They mostly have to sort it out for themselves. It’s confusing.
It’s created a tsunami on top of the same complaints that have gone on for a year — clogged phone lines, fraud, miscommunication and delayed payments, advocates say. “It’s like 2020 all over again,” said Paul Raider, a pizza delivery driver in Canton, N.Y. “It feels like they dropped the ball.” Raider is not sure if he reapplied correctly, can’t remember his pin number and keeps getting shut out of the state’s phone system. After entering his personal information and following the prompts, a recording says to call back later and hangs up.
The state asks people not to call the Telephone Claims Center, or TCC, to check the progress of their applications until they have gone without pay for at least three weeks.
Erica Collins, who lost her job at the Syracuse VA Medical Center, said she has logged 32 hours on the phone since March 1, when her benefits were cut off. First, they told her there was a banking error. Then, a supervisor said her benefits had been rerouted to someone else’s account.
Another person said they had calculated her benefits incorrectly and she was owed about $3,000 in backpay. It hasn’t arrived.
“They’re just like ‘Keep being patient,’ " she said. “I’m like, are you going to keep feeding my kids?”
Lenna Bennett, an out-of-work administrative assistant from Brooklyn, runs a Facebook unemployment help group with 9,000 members. Their strategy is to flood the phone lines until someone answers, then ask as many questions as possible to bring answers back to the group.
“It’s a community and we all realize we are up against the same Goliath,” she said. “The person who gets through is calling for all of us.”
With no one to call, the online panic is almost audible in a state where nearly 900,000 people are still out of work and struggling to pay bills.
Hundreds of people respond to the labor department’s tweets and Facebook posts with pleas for help.
Last week, the department went off-topic and tweeted its praise for the legalization of recreational pot. In response, dozens of people begged the department to pay attention to their claims.
“How about fixing unemployment instead of having to wait weeks,” one person wrote. “No money for bills, car getting ready to be repossessed, phone getting ready to be cutoff! We can’t tell our bill collectors to wait weeks!”
Another said: “People are definitely going to need to smoke after trying to get in touch with TCC.”
People call news reporters in tears. They reach out to their elected representatives and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. Sen. Rachel May, D- Syracuse, has helped more than 1,000 people navigate the system, her staff said.
The Workers Defense League is one of the few advocates for people all over the state who need to sort out their claims. Jon Bloom, executive director, said the huge number of people who need to reapply after one year added to thousands of brand new applicants is overwhelming the system.
“The volume is enormous,” he said. “It’s a tsunami.”
He said most of the issues are easily fixed. The problem is reaching someone with enough experience to handle a complicated issue.
“It’s still a huge situation. There’s still lots and lots of people unemployed. Lots of people running into problems both minor and more major with getting their benefits,” he said. “Most of the time, the problems will be solved. The Department of Labor will release the money if you can make clear to them that you’re entitled to it.”
There are several reasons it is difficult for people to sort out the unemployment system on their own.
First, not everyone has to reapply at the end of one year. It depends whether you’ve worked in the last year, how much money you’ve made and which unemployment insurance program you’re in.
How to figure out if you need to reapply after one year.
It is difficult for people to keep track of the unemployment insurance programs they’re using and the rules for each one. They have different requirements.
New York’s traditional unemployment insurance pays benefits for 26 weeks. There are three other federal programs that can extend benefits for longer or expand the types of workers who qualify. Two of those programs have been under the threat of expiring, then were renewed by Congress at the last minute.
Each time Congress acts, the phone lines fill up with people who want to know whether they have to do anything to get the extra money. Usually, the answer is no. And the other message is: Please don’t call about that.
To make matters worse, New York’s system has been fraught with fraudulent claims. They have caught more than 500,000 of them, but they continue every day.
Scammers appear even in the comments on the labor department’s Facebook page. On Friday, someone repeatedly shared a suspicious link that asked people to enter identifying information. That information can be used to file a fraudulent claim in someone’s name.
When that person tries to file for unemployment, they discover someone else has already made a claim in their name. That can take weeks to resolve.
Bloom, who has a job, said even he was a victim of identity theft. He got a letter from the state that said he had qualified for unemployment benefits. Of course, he had not applied.
To fight fraud, the state recently added one more layer of security. The state hired a firm called ID.me that asks people to certify their identities. They may ask for a Social Security card or other identification that some people don’t have on hand.
“It is causing problems and it is causing delays,” he said.
More than 5 million people have filed unemployment claims in New York since March 2020. Initial unemployment claims have slowed down since the initial surge. But they remain steady and high.
In the week that ended March 27, there were 51,500 initial claims filed in New York. Initial claims increased over the previous week in every industry and every region in New York state.
There were 2,025 new claims filed in Central New York, an increase from 1,380 the week before.
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