The state said last week that 200,000 unemployment claimants would get callbacks. But many have yet to talk to a real representative
Janine Hamilton awoke to her phone ringing at her bedside at 1 a.m. on Easter Sunday.
It was a robocall from the New York Department of Labor, telling her for the second time in two days that the department would follow up on her unemployment insurance claim with a call within 72 hours.
Hamilton, of Livonia, Livingston County, runs several businesses on Etsy. She’d already spent several days untangling how to apply for pandemic-related unemployment insurance. She was on hold for over 2.5 hours during one of her first attempts to reach the office by phone, only to be automatically hung up on when she finally reached the front of the line.
“You get to the point where you just want to give up,” she said.
Her husband is still working, but bills are adding up, and because of some of her health conditions, she’s reluctant to get another job working outside her home for fear of infection. She laid awake in bed for hours after her rude awakening on Easter morning.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I thought, ‘They’re just going to keep calling and calling.’”
New unemployment system to handle claims
New York’s unemployment system has been the target of both wrath and gratitude over the past month.
As some have received much-needed unemployment income to pay mortgages and bills, others seem to be stuck in inescapable limbo, unable to finalize their applications without speaking to a representative but unable to reach anyone by phone.
Last week, the state unveiled a new website, in partnership with Google and other tech companies, that is meant to expedite the application process. Those companies also helped expand server capacity and increase the amount of phone ports at the Department of Labor’s call centers.
The department also installed a 72-hour callback system that would handle claimants with partially completed applications.
More than 800,000 unemployment claims had been filed as of April 9, and 200,000 were still outstanding at that time, said Melissa DeRosa, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aide.
The department’s new phone system called 200,000 people back between April 9 and 12, according to a spokesperson. Those who were called either received a robocall message saying their claim was received, or a call from a human unemployment office representative.
It’s unclear why certain applicants received the robocall message, and why some have gotten multiple robocalls in a row as the week wore on. The Department of Labor did not comment on these issues in response to an inquiry.
The Department cannot share questions asked during its calls with applicants or reasons why an applicant might need a follow-up call, for privacy reasons.
The department is contacting thousands of New Yorkers daily amid the highest level of unemployment insurance claims since the Great Depression, said spokesperson Deanna Cohen. She assured residents that every applicant will get all of the benefits due to them.
The system is “deplorable,” said Darique Weekes, of Harlem, who said he called the office more than 500 times between March 15 and April 3. The New York City bar where he worked abruptly shut down when Cuomo ordered restaurants and bars to close in mid-March.
He finished his claim online, and has since tried to claim benefits several weeks in a row, but hasn’t seen any money hit his bank account. When he calls the hotline, he’s told his claim is valid, but online it says it is still pending.
He’s going on five weeks of waiting; “I really don’t have too many options,” he said.
Rollover from old system?
Five days after Weekes lost his job at the bar, Nieve Zambrano lost her job as a school bus driver in Brooklyn. She’s been trying to finish her claim ever since, and the stack of bills are piling up.
She has a one-year-old infant that must be supported and no income to do so.
"I need the money right now," she said.
Zambrano filed her claim under the Department of Labor's old application system which required those with partially complete applications to call a hotline in order to complete the process.
But a spike in the number of callers crashed the hotline and a surge in the number of applicants looking to file through the state's unemployment website overwhelmed the system, leaving thousands without a way to file.
The new callback system is supposed to keep applicants like Zambrano from having to spend hours trying to reach an operator to have their questions answered or complete their claim.
But Zambrano is still waiting to talk to an actual person. So far, she has only received a recorded message notifying her that someone will contact her in the coming days to complete her application.
"They said they would call you back to complete your application, but nobody calls you," Zambrano said.
The 72-hour timeline gives a bit of hope, but it doesn't last long, said Matt Peown, of Webster, Monroe County, whose work as a solar panel installer in the Rochester area was halted several weeks ago.
He filed an application under the old system the day his company, GreenSpark Solar, stopped installation work, but was told he needed to call the department to finish it. Out of his installation coworkers, about half were able to finish their applications and receive benefits, while others, like himself, were told to call.
In the following days, he'd set aside an hour or two as unemployment calling time.
"It was just call, busy signal, hang up; call, busy signal, hang up," he said. On Friday, he got a robocall alerting him to the new system, and assuring him he'd hear from the department in 72 hours.
But since then, nothing.
Peown's wife is still working, and he gets some income from his time in the U.S. Army. Also, his 3-year-old son doesn't currently need to be at daycare. But without those circumstances, he would be hard pressed to make ends meet, he said.
"I know the system is not meant to handle this amount of volume," he said. "But there has to be a contingency plan before that call is made for everyone to stop working."
Navigating the new system
The state’s new unemployment website can be accessed by going to www.unemployment.labor.ny.gov.
To sign in, you will need to enter you ny.gov ID information, or create a new account.
From there, users will be asked to fill out an application and submit any required documents through a secure online portal.
If you have problems with your current account or issues with creating one, you can call 800-833-3000 for assistance.
Claims filed using the old website are still being processed and anyone who was told to call the state's unemployment hotline to complete their application should stop calling.
When calling back applicants, know that Department of Labor representatives may call from numbers that appear as “private” on caller ID.
Representatives will verify their identity by providing the date claimants filed their unemployment insurance application and the type of claim they filed, according to the department. They may also ask for some personal information in order to verify the claimant’s identity and complete the application.