On Thursday afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo assured the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are struggling to file for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic that his administration is doing everything it can to streamline the process. "The system just crashed because of the volume, it's one of those unanticipated consequences of a situation like this," Cuomo told reporters. "We're working with Google to come up with an online mechanism that bypasses any phone certification. You have the phone certification because you want to make sure that people who are applying are also qualified."
But lawmakers and legal experts say that this emphasis on eligibility to prevent overpayments—with weekly phone check-ins and prohibitions on part-time work—is a huge reason for the bottleneck in the first place.
"Once their monetary eligibility and basic criteria are established, if there are details that need to be investigated, money should be issued and any investigation should be happening at a later date," said Richard Blum, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society's employment unit.
"If we accept the idea that most of the people who are losing work either completely or partly are not going to find work any time soon, and in fact they should not be out looking for work any time soon as a matter of public health, then yes we should just assume people to be legitimately unemployed for the time being," Blum said. "And when the system is better functioning and able to, they can follow up with people for various details."
Currently, a Department of Labor staffer must conduct a phone interview to certify eligibility for regular Unemployment Insurance or the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance [PUA]. It's not uncommon for New Yorkers to call hundreds of times a day, for weeks at a time, in vain to reach a human being.
"I have been calling unemployment for the last four weeks, everyday, maybe 500 times," Omadevi Ramnarine, a Queens resident who works as a cashier at a supermarket, wrote in an email to Gothamist. "I have a toddler and my nine-year-old that has autism. Unfortunately due to the coronavirus I had to end up staying home with them because of no school and no daycare," she continued. "I have rent and bills to pay. I emailed so [many] people and I even sent a letter to Albany. I'm losing my mind and still don't even know why I have to call."
Queens State Senator Mike Gianaris said that he was asking the Department of Labor to waive the requirement of a phone interview, and asked New Yorkers to sign his petition demanding it.
"Much of the problem could be solved if they temporarily waived the requirement that an actual interview take place. That's what's slowing things down," Gianaris said.
The Cuomo administration has extended all unemployment benefits by 13 weeks, for a total of 39 weeks, and are sending out an extra one-time $600 payment to everyone currently receiving money. Since March 9th, 810,000 people have applied for unemployment—350,000 last week alone—and 600,000 applications have been processed.
The administration claims they have reduced certification calls by half since the pandemic began, but that some call requirements are federally mandated.
"I believe there's enough flexibility to meet requirements without an in-person conversation. That's antiquated in this day and age anyway," Gianaris countered. "There's no way that people shouldn't be able to digitally communicate this information."
At Thursday's press conference, Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, said that the DOL's unemployment portal would be shutting down on Thursday between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.; afterwards, she said the portal will have an easier application process with fewer questions, though it wasn't entirely clear what Google's role is. The company did not immediately respond to our questions.
"When you're finished with the application process, if there's any questions they'll say, 'Don't call us, we will call you within 72 hours,'" DeRosa said. "Hopefully after 7 the system will be much better streamlined."
Those questions are likely to persist. Multiple New Yorkers told Gothamist that once they are able to get through to the DOL, they are getting conflicting information.
While the DOL clearly states that someone must be deemed ineligible for regular unemployment benefits before they apply for the PUA, they are told over the phone to apply for PUA anyway, even if they haven't yet been rejected for unemployment insurance.
The form for getting PUA assistance asks workers for their most recent yearly net income, but phone operators are asking for 1099 forms, which only show gross income. Given that the deadline to file taxes has been extended until June and many workers haven't filed yet, it may force them to use returns from earlier years in which they made less money.
"Can we get in trouble later on for not submitting one thing or another?" wondered Jennifer Konomis, a realtor in Queens who is self-employed and said she called 1,000 times before getting through to a DOL staffer. "Are we going to take the fall for that discrepancy later?"
According to DOL spokesperson Deanna Cohen, "Per US DOL Guidance, New Yorkers must file for regular UI before they can file for PUA. When a claimant files for UI and they are denied, they will immediately be directed to the PUA application so there will be no lag time between the two."
Cohen added, "We are in the process of making the PUA application fully available now as we had to wait for US DOL guidance before we could make it available. Information will be posted to our website."
Cohen said that once someone is approved for unemployment benefits, they can continue to certify online for the duration.
Blum, the Legal Aid attorney, stressed that the onus isn't all on New Yorkers to provide their income statements to the state government. A recent New York Court of Appeals decision ruled that "gig" workers for apps like Uber, Lyft, and Postmates, are in fact employees, eligible for regular unemployment insurance, and thus those companies must turn over earnings information to the state.
"It is essential that the DOL demand and require all employers who are misclassifying their workforce to be turning over earnings data so the worker doesn't have to scramble to get that information," Blum said, noting that failing to do so is a misdemeanor.
What if your hours are cut back due to the pandemic, or you are still technically employed but must stay home due to child care or family obligations— are you eligible for benefits? Should you even be looking for work when you can't leave your apartment? The DOL's website can be extremely vague when addressing these questions: "It depends," reads one answer.
"We have not had clear direction from the DOL about what availability to work means in this context and what work search requirements will ultimately be required of people," Blum said. "The lack of messaging here and the confusion of the messaging here has been disastrous."
While the extra 13 weeks of unemployment eligibility is supposed to apply to everyone whose benefits expired after July 1st, 2019, getting the state to restart benefits has proven extremely difficult, according to multiple people who contacted Gothamist.
"The site says my benefits are exhausted and there’s no option to file a new claim. I have also tried numerous times to call the number posted on their site, but I can never get through," said Desiree O'Niell, who said her benefits expired in February.
Charis Elliott, a single mother who lives in Bushwick, said they had been applying for unemployment since they lost their retail job on March 31st, but have been unable to get through.
"We were homeless in 2018 and a lot of different things happened, and I feel like we were finally at that point [of stability] and now it's really scary," Elliot said.
Elliott expressed frustration that Cuomo would assist homeowners in deferring mortgage payments during the pandemic but has so far only offered to prevent evictions for renters for 90 days.
"OK cool, I don't pay rent for 90 days, and then I'm gonna owe 90 days of rent and that's gonna ruin my credit and I'll never be able to rent an apartment again," Elliott said.
Elliott was also baffled that the $500-per-child federal stimulus payments exclude children over the age of 16, like her son.
"Most older teenagers eat a ton of food! I've spent thousands of dollars of food in the past few months."
Elliott added, "It's not sustainable unless I get unemployment yesterday. Having to pay rent and food and all my other bills and try to think about what's next, or whether I'm going to have a job or not, I'm not gonna have any extra money to save to be unemployed for the longer term."
[UPDATE / 4:25 p.m] The DOL just released more information on what they're calling a "Tech Surge" to improve the unemployment system with the help of Google Cloud, Deloitte, and Verizon. From the release:
Google Cloud has worked with the State Office of Information Technology Services to create a more user-friendly, streamlined, and reliable unemployment insurance application for the Department of Labor. The online application will shut down from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM today to transition to this new streamlined application. Specific upgrades include: Leveraging Google Cloud’s infrastructure to increase reliability and allow the application to scale, so it can handle a high volume of users; Allowing users to save an incomplete application and pick up where they left off; Providing an “every device experience,” so New Yorkers can file from smartphones, tablets, and laptops; and Streamlining the number of questions so the application is shorter and easier to understand. Deloitte is opening an additional unemployment insurance call center staffed by hundreds of experienced customer service professionals, which will dramatically increase the number of calls that can be handled; and Verizon is expanding the number of phone “ports” for the Department of Labor’s call center from 1,750 to over 10,000 by the end of this week -- increasing the center’s call capacity. The Department of Labor will begin rolling out a “call back” feature which allows state representatives to call New Yorkers with incomplete unemployment insurance applications and finish their applications over the phone. This means those who fully complete their claim online will NOT need to call the state themselves. New Yorkers who had previously been told to call the hotline should not — instead, the DOL will call them to complete their application. To prevent fraud, state representatives will verify their legitimacy by providing New Yorkers’ claim type and filing date.