The COVID-19 crisis is visiting social and financial hardship on millions of Americans. But with the country staring down the prospect of a jobless rate not seen since the Great Depression, the desperately needed federal relief has yet to materialize — and seems no closer to becoming a reality than it was last week.
As daily life grinds to a halt, paying for necessities like groceries and rent has suddenly become a challenge for many, and a near-impossibility for those who were already struggling to get by. Below, a brief guide for New Yorkers navigating our frayed, vexing social safety net.
As bars, restaurants, and all non-essential businesses have been forced to shutter in a desperate bid to slow the spread of the virus, New York's Department of Labor has seen a 1000 percent surge in unemployment claims in parts of the state. That rush of jobless workers has effectively overwhelmed the state's unemployment system. The website, which is apparently designed to be used with decades-old internet browsers, has repeatedly crashed. New Yorkers have also reported waiting hours on the phone.
To deal with the demand, filing is now grouped by first letter of an applicant's last name. Those with last names starting with A through F should file on Monday, G through N on Tuesday, and O through Z on Wednesday. You can file on Thursday or Friday if you missed your day.
If you're out of work because of the novel coronavirus, you should be eligible to begin receiving unemployment money. Part-time workers can receive partial benefits, while gig economy workers are not currently eligible. Some undocumented residents may qualify for unemployment, according to the advocacy group Make the Road. The stalled federal stimulus bill is expected to extend eligibility, while adding $250 billion to bolster the benefits.
The program, which is administered by states, offers benefits as a percentage of income over the past year. In New York, you'll need to have earned $3,600 during the course of the base period — defined as the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters. The maximum weekly benefit rate is $504, and the state has waived its typical seven-day waiting period.
Cash assistance is a monthly benefit that low-income households may receive, provided they meet a number of stringent requirements. Single households without children, for example, may not earn more than $398.10 per month in countable income in order to qualify (and even then, would only receive $398.10 in monthly benefits). Those with more than $2,000 in savings are not also not eligible.
"Cash assistance is minimal. It's a very small monthly benefit," said Diane Wenzler, the director of the Benefits Plus Learning Center at the Community Service Society, which has put together a resource guide on the impact of coronavirus on public assistance. Aside from the fact that applicants are no longer required to appear in person, "they haven't loosened the qualifications at all," Wenzler notes.
Those seeking benefits must create an account with the NYC Human Resources Administration. More information can be found online or by phone at 718-557-1399.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers electronic benefits that can be used to buy certain food products. New Yorkers can apply for both cash assistance and SNAP at the same time, though those who may not qualify for the former may be eligible for the latter. The gross income maximums for food stamps come out to $1,354/month for a family of one, and $2,311 for a family of three.
There are additional restrictions and caveats after that gross monthly income hurdle, says Wenzler, who calls the process "really not as straightforward as it should be." But the nutritional benefit is slightly less cumbersome than cash assistance, and currently serves more than 1.5 million New Yorkers (though the Trump administration was attempting to slash that number as recently as last month).
Those currently receiving SNAP benefits may be eligible for additional assistance through a new program offered by the nonprofit Give Directly, which has vowed to send $1,000 to some vulnerable families already enrolled in the program.
Free Meals For Students
Starting on Monday, as more than one million public school students transition fully to remote learning, the city's Department of Education will make available three meals per day for all NYC children. The grab-and-go meals will be served from 439 sites across the city on weekdays between 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. All three meals can be picked up at the same time, and no registration or ID is required. This week's breakfast and lunch menus includes assorted sandwiches, fruit, and many different kinds of bean salad.
For many people who suddenly find themselves without a paycheck, the above benefits may either not be available or not be nearly enough. In the continued absence of serious federal relief, more and more New Yorkers are turning to networks of mutual aid.
Discrete fundraisers have been launched for restaurant workers, seniors, formerly incarcerated individuals, domestic workers, and people of color. Groups like Invisible Hands and Corona Couriers are helping to get groceries and other supplies to those stuck inside their homes. And many New Yorkers have taken it upon themselves to start neighborhood Google Docs (City Limits has a good compilation of these) to ensure their neighbors have everything that they need.
While individual actions and philanthropy can go a long way toward filling the gaps right now, experts say they're no match for the staggering federal action required to help millions of Americans survive. Until then, many New Yorkers may find themselves forced to navigate a system of highly-restricted benefits seemingly aimed at frustrating potential beneficiaries.
"These problems have been going on for years," says Wenzler. "This crisis is just highlighting the insufficient social safety net."