Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has repeatedly promised to fix New York’s archaic unemployment-insurance system, which has been overwhelmed by an unprecedented wave of claims.
The state has partnered with Google to overhaul the online application, staffed call centers with hundreds of additional workers and expanded their call-volume capacity, and vowed to address outstanding unemployment claims within 72 hours.
Carly Keohane has yet to benefit from any of those improvements.
Ms. Keohane, who lost her waitressing job in Rochester, N.Y., has been waiting a month to receive $2,124 in unemployment payments as a direct deposit into her bank account.
But the state instead told her that the money had been deposited on a state-issued debit card, which she never received. She cannot get anyone on the phone to find out where it is.
“I call the Department of Labor every single day, and I know the options by heart now,” said Ms. Keohane, 31, whose checking account was down to $10.35. “It would be OK if I just knew where the money was.”
As the coronavirus pandemic and near-nationwide stay-at-home orders exact an astonishing toll on the American economy, states’ unemployment systems have cratered under a never-before-seen deluge of jobless claims. Over the past four weeks, about 22 million workers filed jobless claims, including about 1.2 million New Yorkers.
Unemployment systems, some of which rely on an antiquated computer programming language that has largely gone the way of dinosaurs, were not built for such a rush of claimants.
They also were not built for a new class of workers — independent contractors and the self-employed — now eligible for assistance during the pandemic.
The results have been disastrous and maddening. Many people have had their online applications crash before they could hit submit, requiring them to start again from scratch. They have endured hourslong wait times over several days only to get randomly disconnected, or connected with representatives who say they cannot fix their issues.
In other states, including Kansas and Missouri, applicants say that they are still waiting for their unemployment payments to arrive, and that they have experienced long wait times on the phone, as well as busy signals, disconnections and error-prone online applications.
Without unemployment assistance, they have relied on friends, family and savings, if they have one, to survive.
For applicants in New York lucky enough to get through and submit a claim, some have been jolted awake at 2 a.m. by calls from the state’s Department of Labor seeking to confirm their identity.
Speaking in Albany on Thursday, the secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, said the state had been staggering under the weight of more than one million claims for unemployment insurance, about four times the number of people who had lost jobs after the 2008 economic meltdown.
“We are going to continue doing everything we can to bring the system up to deal with this scale,” she said.
Ms. Keohane was saving for a down payment on house. Instead, she has withdrawn all of her money to pay for groceries, as well as diapers and wipes for her 2-year-old son.
She has debated getting groceries from a food pantry but cannot bring herself to do it.
“It’s not right for me to have to go there,” she said. “There are people who are more needy than me.”
Amy Berryman, a playwright who was let go from a wine bar in Manhattan last month, has not received the debit card that the state said it sent her weeks ago. Every week when she has to certify her unemployment claim, she asks that her payment be deposited into her bank account. It never has.
“I’m trying to spend $50 a week or less,” said Ms. Berryman, 31, as she stood in line at a grocery store to buy fresh produce, which she has been using to make lots of soup.
The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus passed last month sets aside especially generous benefits for the recently unemployed. It provides $600 a week on top of what states offer for unemployment. (The maximum weekly unemployment in New York is $504.)
But the stimulus has exacerbated the problem for states, which are now responsible for administering an enormous expansion of unemployment benefits for previously ineligible workers. For the first time, independent contractors and self-employed workers qualify for unemployment relief.
But in New York and other states, those workers are facing an extra set of head-scratching bureaucratic obstacles.
Self-employed New Yorkers, for instance, must first apply for traditional unemployment benefits even though they are not eligible. Once the state denies their claim, they then can pursue the new pandemic benefits available to them.
Jennifer Walsh, a self-employed hair stylist in upstate New York who stopped working on March 14, submitted her application more than two weeks ago. She is still waiting to be denied.
“Why is this even a step?” said Ms. Walsh, who added that many of her friends in the hair business were in the same situation. “I understand this is a new process for everyone, but in the meantime we are broke and we have no answers.”
While she waits, Ms. Walsh has been using credit cards and her savings to buy food and pay bills. “That will only go so far,” she said.
Ms. DeRosa said on Thursday that of the 275,000 New Yorkers with outstanding unemployment claims, most of those cases involved those people who were self-employed, which requires additional paperwork and confirmation.
But challenges with the New York’s unemployment system are just the start of problems for many people out of work. More than a half-dozen New Yorkers who recently lost their jobs told The New York Times that they requested unemployment payments to be deposited into their checking accounts, but instead received debit cards.
James Colón, who was let go from the Strand bookstore in Manhattan last month, received one of the cards, issued by Key Bank, a regional bank based in Cleveland. Its online banking system worked the first day, but now shows an error message when he tries to log on.
Without access to Key Bank’s site, he cannot transfer the money into his checking account to pay May rent. No one at Key Bank has been able to resolve the problem, he said.
A representative for Key Bank did not immediately respond to questions about its unemployment benefits card. Other states, including Washington and Indiana, also disperse unemployment assistance onto the bank’s cards.
Bobbie de Matos, who lost her server job at a table-tennis themed bar in Manhattan, received a Key Bank card, which she did not request. It also does not work.
After calling the bank over many days, including a four-hour-hold on one call, Ms. de Matos said she finally reached a representative who told her that the card had not been assigned to her or anyone.
She needed to ask the state’s Labor Department to fix the issue, the person told her. But the state said it was an error with the bank. A new card is supposed to arrive in the mail soon.
She is hoping everything will be cleared up by next Friday, when she is scheduled to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn and will need to pay the movers.
“It’s a complete mess,” said Ms. de Matos, 23.
Long before the stay-at-home orders, Melvin Taylor II was let go from a production position in New York City. He received a Key Bank card in the mail late last year for his unemployment benefits.
Right as mass layoffs and furloughs began about a month ago, Key Bank alerted him that it had detected potential fraud on his card and automatically canceled it.
Mr. Taylor said he had not been able to reach a bank representative to order a replacement card.
“You’d be on the phone three hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds, and then the phone would cut off,” Mr. Taylor said.
He has resorted to searching through coats and pants for loose change — he found about $20 — and has experimented with cheap and filling rice and pasta recipes.
“There are a lot of different spices that you can put in rice,” he said.
Jesse McKinley contributed reporting.