Diagram Illustrates Frustration of Trying to Apply for Unemployment in NY

Of 998 calls to the department over six days, only one got through.

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Application update Apr. 9: New York is launching its new unemployment site tonight at 7 p.m. Applicants will not be required to phone the Department of Labor after applying, instead one of 1,000 call center staff will call the applicant within 72 hours.

Unemployment update Apr. 9: First-time claims for unemployment hit 6.6 million again last week, after 6.6 million the week prior and 3.3 million the week before that. (Prior to the pandemic, weekly first-time unemployment claims had never topped 700,000 in U.S. history.) Some economists believe the U.S. unemployment rate, which was just 3.5 percent prior to the crisis, is now well more than 13 percent.

Unemployment update Apr. 8: New York has announced unemployment benefits will be extended 13 weeks, from 26 to 39 weeks. Plus, an immediate additional $600 will be given to unemployment filers.

The frustrations of going through New York's unemployment application process have been laid bare in a data-driven diagram posted to Reddit.

Thousands of newly unemployed New Yorkers signed a petition this week asking for urgent changes to the state's unemployment application process, with some saying they've been calling non-stop for as many as three weeks, others logging literally thousands of dropped calls as they try desperately to access much-needed funds.

The New York State Department of Labor requires many applicants to phone its call center after applying online, to verify information. The problem -- so many can't get through. New Yorkers who have been trying to apply for benefits for weeks are now running out of money for basics like food and rent.

We profiled two New Yorkers who are facing this head on. As of Wednesday, neither had reached a person who could help.

Brooklyn consultant Ted -- who asked to speak anonymously for fear of affecting his job prospects -- made the diagram that has garnered more than 25,000 upvoted on Reddit. He started recording his calls to the New York State Department of Labor after realizing it might be a long slog to get through. "The vast majority of the calls, the phone didn't even ring. And then the ones that did answer it would either play a message that said we’re too busy."

Altogether, he phoned the department 992 times over six days to get through to someone. "Around the 300th call I thought this would look pretty bad if I made a Sankey diagram out of these calls," he said.

Ted, who consults on projects for local and state government, said he noticed his phone would only store 500 calls. So he downloaded an app to export his call log and started compiling the calls onto an Excel sheet.

The data shows that, of 992 calls, 845 got a busy line and disconnected immediately. Of the 147 calls that were answered, most would then play a message saying the line was too busy, and would then disconnect. Of the 69 where he was able to enter his SSN and pin number, only one connected him to a human who was able to help him file his claim. The other 68? They disconnected while transferring him to an operator.

Attempts to file an unemployment claim in New York by phone

"On the morning of the sixth day I got through to a person. It was incredibly exciting that something different had happened, and [as I was transferred] they said the estimated wait time was six minutes. It was an hour, but I was gleeful about it -- I would have waited 8 hours, I was just happy that I didn’t have to do this anymore."

Ted was able to apply for assistance as an independent contractor under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. However his six days of calls simply allowed him to verify that he is not eligible for the traditional unemployment offered, the first step to getting unemployment under the pandemic program. He said small changes to the department's system could save times for many.

"Why did I need to call when I already told then in my answers that I’m not eligible for UI? Just change that, then you would have thousands of people who no longer need to call this number."

Ted said one of the worst things for him was that when he posted the graphic to Reddit, many people started reaching out to him seeking help and advice to get their claims filed. "It's sad... that really this is how bad it is that people are reaching out to random strangers for help."

New Yorkers are applying for unemployment in record numbers -- more than 450,000 in the last two weeks. 

On Monday Apr. 6, New York Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa told reporters the state department had just added 300 more staff to its roster of 700 call center employees. She said the state was launching a new unemployment site in partnership with Google by April 8, and had extended its hotline hours to 7-days-per-week.

"I know it's frustrating, horrible, unacceptable, but we ask people to remain patient, we are working at it," she said. Benefits will go back to the date of unemployment, even if there is a lag to signing up for benefits, she assured New Yorkers.

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