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People Are Getting Unemployment Cash, But Signing Up for Benefits Is Still a Mess

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In response, New York’s Department of Labor says it’s now requiring fewer online applicants to go through burdensome phone checks

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo sits in front of the state flag and U.S. flag at the Jacob Javits Center
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo
Photo by John Lamparski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Here’s the good news: The New York State Department of Labor has already started sending out $600 pandemic unemployment payments, impressive timing for a federally-funded program that was signed into law less than two weeks ago. The supplemental benefit is in addition to the state’s regular unemployment payments, and should allow most hospitality workers to collect their full pay while out of work.

The bad news, unfortunately, is that New Yorkers are still encountering massive difficulties actually signing up for unemployment. The system continues to buckle under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic — and amid the burden of newly expanded benefits.

New York has hired over 700 new staffers to help process these claims and answer millions of calls, but scores of people on Twitter and Facebook continue to report abject misery, recounting instances of calling thousands of times over the course of weeks to secure benefits. The delays mean that ex-waiters, bartenders, dishwashers, and other unemployed bar and restaurant staffers could wait a month or more before receiving funds.

Following are three reported kinks causing delays for some workers, and what the labor department is doing to smooth things out. The agency says it will pay claimants beginning on the first day they were eligible, regardless of when they were able to get through, but that will do little to assuage ex-workers facing utility bills and rent payments due now.

Many online applicants are still required to call the labor department.

Those who manage to apply online are supposed to receive benefits within two to three weeks, but the agency writes in a new FAQ that, in some cases, “additional information must be obtained before payment can be made and your first payment may take longer.” Indeed, the department explains that some applicants must contact so-called “specialists” via phone, a policy that causes further delays due to over capacity phone systems.

Callers who do get through are sometimes hung up on following difficulties with an automated voice recognition system, according to the Post-Standard. That same publication reported on the existence of a public Facebook group — founded by an ex-ABC Cocina waiter — where New Yorkers recount horror tales of the unemployment process, some claiming to have attempted thousands of phone calls, only to later be put on hold for hours at a time.

When asked about the calls, the labor department told Eater yesterday that it has reduced the instances in which it requires applicants to verify information by phone “by over half to streamline the process and free up the phone lines.” The state did not say what caused some applicants to need phone calls, while others could be processed by the online system alone.

Some report no payment for first week of unemployment despite new laws.

In most cases, the first week of unemployment is a so-called “waiting week.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo waived that seven-day period in mid-March for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but a laid-off staffer has shown Eater an electronic claim with an unpaid initial week. A separate Twitter user reported the same issue. The labor department, when asked about this issue, said claimants receiving the waiting week message will be credited once they are found eligible.

There are issues for some claimants who want to access their extra 13 weeks.

The federal stimulus extends unemployment benefits to 39 weeks, past New York’s regular 26-week time frame, but the state is still dealing with getting that part of the system fully up and running. Some claimants who have already exhausted their initial six months of payments — likely folks who were unemployed before the pandemic began — are told they’ll need to file a new claim, and will receive a “letter in the mail” with details. That means they’ll need to start the process to file for unemployment again to access those extra 13 weeks.

Other New Yorkers who have used up their initial 26 weeks within an allotted time frame will simply be able to certify those additional 13 weeks online, but that part of the benefits system doesn’t appear to be working just yet. “We’re actively working on getting the site updated for this,” per an April 6 tweet from the labor department, which adds that it will “provide more information as it becomes available.”