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Registering for Unemployment Is Nearly Impossible Right Now, Restaurant Workers Say

The overwhelmed state website changed its process in hopes of easing the burden, but it’s still a struggle to get benefits, workers say

Hundred dollar bills lay on a table, depicting President Benjamin Franklin
Hundred dollar bills
Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

New York unemployment insurance, a government program that workers depend on for cash payments upon losing a job, appears to be overwhelmed to a standstill amid the COVID-19 restaurant shutdown — with more than 21,000 calls on Tuesday, compared to 2,000 from the week before. Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo waived the seven-day waiting period to register, a measure that has surely increased the volume of claims.

This has prompted the state to change the way people register. Amid multiple reports of hospitality industry workers being unable to sign up for the payments — or reach telephone operators — the state labor department instituted a system yesterday whereby claimants sign up on a day that corresponds with the first letter of their last name.

Those with a last name that starts with A-F will file on Mondays.

Those with a last name that starts with G-N will file on Tuesdays.

Those with a last name that starts with O-Z will file on Wednesdays.

People who miss their filing day will submit claims on Thursday or Friday. “Filing later in the week will not delay your payments or affect the date of your claim,” per the labor department website, stating that all claims are effective on the Monday of the week in which they’re filed.

“By noon today, we received more than 21,000 calls, compared to the 2,000 in total last Tuesday, and 110,000 website visits, compared to 42,000 last Tuesday,” the labor department wrote on Twitter yesterday. It pledged to immediately hire 34 Albany-based clerks to process those claims. Those full-time, temporary jobs pay $17.61 per hour.

Earlier this week, an Eater tipster reported that neither they nor any restaurant colleagues had been able to register for unemployment insurance. Today, an ex-bartender whose name falls into the Wednesday registration group reported that they could still not log onto the system or reach an operator. In fact, they reported being hung up on due to the volume of calls.

Numerous Twitter users have posted today that they were unable to access the system, citing the session timing out or the website crashing multiple times.

Approximately 321,000 people work in New York’s hospitality industry. Union Square Hospitality, one of the city’s largest restaurant groups, laid off over 2,000 people today, joining hundreds of other major restaurant groups and smaller independent shops that have decided to close or slim down staff. Many of those individuals will be applying for unemployment benefits.

Unemployment insurance payments are based on a worker’s former salary and are capped at $504 per week. A waiter earning $39,710 every year — about the city average — would earn $381 per week while on unemployment, or roughly half their regular wage.

But undocumented workers, who make up an important and large portion of the hospitality workforce, are ineligible for unemployment.