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.
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.
One laid-off New Yorker says he's called the New York State Department of Labor at least 2,000 times in the last two weeks. Another says, on Thursday, she called over 300 times. No answer. Now both are running out of cash, and don't know how they're going to pay their rent.
New Yorkers are applying for unemployment in record numbers -- more than 450,000 in the last two weeks. But whether they receive it is a different story. A Labor Department requirement that the unemployed call to verify their details before claiming insurance -- coupled with a huge overload of its system -- is leaving many New Yorkers feeling helpless and financially vulnerable as the coronavirus crisis drags on.
These are their stories.
Monica Montanez, 23, was laid off three weeks ago from her restaurant job at Sweet Chick in Long Island City. She applied for unemployment insurance straight away, but every day since has been trying to call the New York State Department of Labor to confirm her application -- and is getting a busy line. Now she's running out of money.
"Without any income, I am bleeding through my savings trying to buy enough groceries so that I won’t have to leave my house. I still was forced to pay my phone bill (to call unemployment) and utilities for this month. This entire experience has made me feel helpless, and as if I’m running out of time."
Montanez's story is one of many New Yorkers. The Department of Labor requires applicants to call to verify certain information after submitting their claim online. The problem for many New Yorkers -- they can't get through.
"Once I finished applying online I was told I had to call a representative to complete my claim," Montanez said. "I have been constantly calling ever since, sometimes hundreds of times never getting past a busy signal. Yesterday I called over 300 times. Sometimes I get to the automated system and they hang up on me halfway through."
Three weeks without income is now having serious implications. After being laid off without severance, she spent a quarter of her savings and rent stocking up on groceries and supplies should the situation get worse. Ahead of April 1st rent due, she contacted her landlord asking for a rent reprieve. It was denied. Now she's scared she's going to lose her home, after the 90 day eviction moratorium is lifted.
"I was hoping that somehow the 90 day mortgage relief given to home and property owners would somehow trickle down to renters but now I see, after emailing my landlord, that we are on our own. It’s terrifying to think about how many other people in the city are worrying about losing their homes on top of getting sick during a time like this."
Montanez says she has no one who can bail her out. Her friends and family members have also been left in precarious situations. She said she's trying to stay positive and hopes she'll get a job soon to make the $3,900 she will need to pay her rent in Bushwick for the next three months. (Update as of Apr. 7, Montanez says she has still been unable to get through. She called at least 200 times Tuesday morning.)
When NBC 4 reached Jake on Friday, he'd been on hold to the New York State Department of Labor for almost four hours. Jake - who asked to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of career repercussions - said he was laid off from his real estate job in mid-March, and filed his unemployment claim online immediately.
For the past two weeks, he says he has been continuously calling the Labor Department to verify his information, but hasn't been able to get through. Jake estimates he has called more than 2,000 times in the last few weeks. A screenshot from Friday showed he'd called 198 times that morning.
"Even when you get to the furthest point possible, then you get another automated person saying the line's are all busy and you'll have to call back," he said. "The thing is with all these calls, sometimes you’re not even on hold, it’s just busy, so you literally call a thousand times to get to the automated guy who then hangs up."
The 27-year-old has been working in real estate development for a number of years, and had just started a new job in January. Two months later, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced workplaces should operate at 50 percent capacity, he was laid-off without severance. Jake was paid out to the following Friday.
"I had enough money to pay for my April rent, but as far as my April credit card I was banking on this unemployment to help... and come May 1st my girlfriend can't afford to pay our full rent." Jake says they're going to have to lean on the new order that tenants can't be evicted for 90 days during the coronavirus pandemic. His Midtown East apartment is $4,400 per month.
Earlier this week, Cuomo acknowledged the "stress" New Yorkers were facing trying to access the Department of Labor services. He apologized and said the department was throwing money and resources at fixing the problem, including onboarding "hundreds" of new staff to deal with the influx of claims.
However for people like Jake, it's too little, too late. "Honestly it's one thing to say something and another to do something," he said. "People are suffering." Jake said sometimes, with the frustration of not knowing if someone will ever pick up, he considers abandoning his application and just seeing what will happen. "I feel hopeless and helpless you know."
Jake hopes he will be able to apply for work soon, but the real estate industry is -- in general -- not hiring right now. "For my own dignity I want to be working," he said. On Friday afternoon he messaged NBC 4 with an update: after five hours and 33 minutes he got finally through to the Labor Department. But when the call center went to transfer him, the call dropped. (Update as of Apr. 7 -- Jake has still not been able to get through).
A Social Media Story
More than 4,000 people have joined a Facebook group to raise awareness about issues with the NYS Department of Labor's unemployment process during the COVID-19 pandemic. The posts paint a picture of frustration, desperation and brief glimmers of hope. "YOU GUYS... ITS HAPPENING... I’m on hold!! 55-60 mins!! Keep trying! I know how frustrating it is!," Briana Danielle posted Friday afternoon.
The Facebook group has become a place where New Yorkers can share their tips and vexations with the system, with many feeling they aren't being heard by officials. Some in the group have even started a Change.Org petition calling for urgent changes to the Labor Department's system, as many find themselves about to run out of money for basics like food and rent. It had 600 signatures in 4 hours.
Naomi Constantineau-Witters, a mother of three, said she and her husband were hardworking self-employed New Yorkers -- but she feels that now she has to lean on the state they are unable to get their needs met. "Like many I have made dialing over and over my job in between homeschooling, cooking, playing and mothering. I have called over 250+ times in 3 days," she said. The BK Reader spoke with Brooklyn mom Nicole George, who said she had offered her seven-year-old a $20 reward if he could get through to the department. “He’s just pressing redial," she said.
Tellingly, one member asked the Facebook group if anyone else’s mental health was deteriorating because calling the department had become a full time job. The post had more than 100 likes in a few hours. And from Joel Cardona, some good news: "Day 3 and almost 800 calls later, I finally got through to someone after a 45 minute wait on hold after call 3 today."
On Twitter, frustrated New Yorkers have started a hashtag #WaivetheCall -- asking the New York State Department of Labor to temporarily get rid of the required call.
The department told NBC 4 Friday that it had reduced the number of instances in which people have to call by over half. However, there are certain instances where claimants have to call to verify certain information, it said.
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 said.
In the five days from Mar. 23 - 28 the department got 3.4 million hits on its site for online unemployment filing. That compared to 350,000 in a typical week, representing an increase in web traffic of nearly 900%. In that same period it fielded over 8.2 million calls -- a 16,000% increase from its average of 50,000 calls per week.
Last week, the governor assured New Yorkers the state was working on the issues, but the numbers the department was dealing with was unprecedented.
"It's compounding people's stress," he said. "You're unemployed, you're trying to get on some darn website, you can't get through the website. We have companies working on it. We have literally hundreds of people working on it. I apologize for the pain -- it must be infuriating to deal with."