ALBANY – The state rolled out a new unemployment application Thursday to help deal with a record number of claims, state officials said.
The updated application will have fewer questions, and claimants who leave some fields blank will no longer have to wait for hours on hold with the Department of Labor's phone system. Instead, state employees will return calls of applicants within 72 hours after their claim is submitted, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said during a Thursday news conference.
“They’re going to be reaching out directly to the people so that people don’t have to go through this infuriating process of calling and getting busy signals and thereby collapsing the system,” DeRosa said.
The state has received about 810,000 unemployment claims since March 9, DeRosa said, as the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered businesses statewide. Roughly 600,000 have been successfully processed, while a remaining 200,000 are pending, she said.
Officials hope the new process will make it easier and faster to file an unemployment insurance claim, while also preventing New Yorkers from waiting tirelessly to reach someone from the Department of Labor. Previously, any person who filled out a partial unemployment application would have been instructed to call the state to complete their claim, but thousands have reported calling the line repeatedly, only to hit a busy signal, be disconnected or wait on a never-ending hold.
"It’s a volume issue that we’ve never experienced," DeRosa said.
The Department of Labor’s unemployment site was scheduled to shut down from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday while the system reboots, and reopen later in evening with a new, "more reliable" online application, the department said in a Thursday press release. The updated system will be able to process most applications in full, reducing the number of claimants required to speak to a representative, officials said.
Through a partnership with Google Cloud, Deloitte and Verizon, the state will also expand the capacity of the online and telephone systems, which have been overloaded in recent weeks. The filing system has seen a 16,000 percent increase in phone calls and a 1,600 percent increase in web traffic compared to a usual week, the department said.
Upgrades online will allow more applicants to access the system at once, while also permitting users to revisit an application that they have not yet finished. New Yorkers will also be able to file from more devices, including smartphones and tablets.
To help phone issues, Deloitte will open a new unemployment call center, while Verizon will increase the number of phone "ports" available for the labor department from 1,750 to 10,000 by the end of this week. A total of 2,200 staffers will man the lines, and if the department doesn't reach a claimant the first time they call, they'll just keep calling until they do, a labor department spokeswoman said.
"I recognize that this is an extremely challenging time for all New Yorkers,” Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said. “I have been unemployed. I understand the urgency. We want you to be aware of the steps that we are taking to respond to each of you, as quickly as we can. We know that your livelihood depends on it and we assure you that you will get your benefits."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also stressed Thursday that unemployment benefits will be retroactive to the date a person lost their job. The day prior, he had announced that an additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits would be made available to all New Yorkers, and the state would extend the period covered by unemployment benefits by another 13 weeks, clocking in at a total of 39 weeks. The federal government is expected to reimburse states for the additional contribution through the recently passed CARES Act.
“It’s not like you’re not going to get the same benefit because you didn’t get through on Monday and you didn’t get through until Thursday,” Cuomo said.
The filing process has left tens of thousands of New Yorkers frustrated and unsure when they will receive benefits as they lost their sources of income weeks ago. New York has been "on pause" for more than two weeks, as Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Marianne Hayes, a self-employed consultant from Westchester County, has been trying for more than a week to process her uninsurance claim after she was left without work at the end of March. She first attempted to fill out the online application last Tuesday, but the server wouldn't connect and blocked her from accessing the form.
She tried repeatedly to access the online portal and only had success about a week later. But after finally submitting the application on Monday, the site prompted her to call the state and speak with a representative to finish the claim – something that, by Thursday, she still hadn't been able to do.
"I’ve been in that saga for days, just trying to call and call and call," Hayes said, adding that she has dialed the number more than 100 times.
Sometimes, the call just won't go through; other times, she's placed on hold, only for the line to disconnect hours later. One time, she was immediately routed to a number that only offered a recording in Spanish.
"I won’t rest easy until I know that the claim has been approved, so it’s just been very stressful," she said.
Susan Pattenaude, the policy and pro bono director for a not-for-profit legal services agency in Albany, said she had prepared to file her claim on Wednesday morning after she was furloughed last week. She tried to log in, only for the system to tell her that her username or password was incorrect – though she'd written both down carefully – and eventually locked her out for too many login attempts. The site prompted her to call a representative – an impossible task.
She called 87 times, hitting a busy signal or a recorded voice telling her that, because of the high volume of calls, she should try again later. It was a "nightmare," Pattenaude said.
Eventually, she ended up revisiting the website Wednesday evening "on a whim," when she was finally able to submit her claim after navigating through a maze of confusing questions. To her relief, the site didn't ask her to call again.
Amanda Fries contributed reporting.