Additional reporting by Josefa Velasquez

Need to know more about coronavirus in New York? Sign up for THE CITY’s daily morning newsletter.

Some of the thousands of people suddenly out of work in New York are so desperate to bypass the state’s clogged unemployment benefits hotline they’re using social media to directly contact staff who handle applications.

“They are messaging me privately or commenting on one of my comments on Facebook,” said a veteran Department of Labor employee who asked to remain anonymous.

“I have to block and block and block,” she added. “I want to help. But they have to follow the guidelines and can’t skip the lines.”

The numbers are staggering: Some 369,025 initial unemployment insurance claims were filed for the week ending March 28, according to the state Department of Labor. That represents a 2,674% increase over the same time frame last year.

For the month, “the cumulative increase in March was nearly 425,000 compared to the same period in 2019,” the department said in a press release issued Wednesday.

Nationwide, a record 16.8 million Americans have filed for unemployment aid in the past three weeks, new federal numbers out Thursday showed.

A Big Blow

Many people suddenly out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak say they’ve spent days trying to file claims.

Meghan Daly, 38, a pastry chef at a Gowanus restaurant who was laid off on March 15, said she initially filed online but then got a rejection letter based on a technicality.

She got another letter the same day instructing her to call the state Department of Labor to speak to someone to file her claim.

“I call maybe 100 times a day and never can get through,” she said. “I call at various times a day, multiple times in a row. I get through to the automated message maybe once every 30 times, and then it hangs up on you.”

Meanwhile, she has had to borrow money from friends and family to buy groceries and other essentials.

“Not getting that paycheck was a big blow, and not having unemployment benefits come through has honestly been really difficult,” she said.

‘I Give Up’

State officials have taken a number of steps to clear the logjam of applications flooding the system, according to Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor.

On Thursday evening, state officials were set to launch a new “streamlined” application. They said it would reduce the number of reasons a claim would need to be completed over the phone and change the process so that representatives will call people directly if there are complications, not the other way around.

The system was expected to be down from 5 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. Friday, officials said.

The Department of Labor has also moved every employee possible to the agency’s unemployment insurance telephone claim center. All told, 1,000 state staffers are answering calls or filling out back-end paperwork to authorize claims, officials said.

The state also has extended hours and service to the weekend, and is working to improve its website.

With these changes, anyone who has already filed a partial claim does not need to refile and does not need to keep calling. According to De Rosa, a representative should be calling each person in this situation in the next 72 hours.

One of those people with a partial claim is Anthony Nam, 24, a freelance sewing instructor and fashion designer from Ridgewood whose last day of teaching was March 17.

Anthony Nam started sewing face masks from his Ridgewood, Queens apartment after losing his job. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The studio moved everything online and wanted to do Facetime lessons,” he said. “The school released all freelance teachers from their contracts.”

Like many others, he filled out an unemployment benefits application online but was told he needed to complete the claim by calling in.

“When you call, it sends you straight to a dial tone, and then it hangs up after a second,” he said. “It takes 20-25 calls before you even get an automated message.”

His days are now spent trying to break through.

“I get up at eight and immediately start calling, hoping that if I call early I can eventually slide in.”

“Once I hit 250 calls for the day, I just think, there’s no way I will get through at this point, and I give up for the day and just try again the next day. I’ve been doing that every day.”

If the new process works as intended, Nam should receive a call from the Labor Dept. to complete his claim in the next few days.

Cheers and Screams

Some have been lucky enough to get through.

The Labor Department call taker said many people cheer when she picks up the phone. Some tell her they have waited for up to two hours, she said.

“They scream,” she said. “They are so nervous we might get disconnected. I’m always telling them not to worry, I’ll call them back.”

DeRosa has acknowledged that the deluge of calls, emails and faxes has overwhelmed the system.

At the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, the largest day of claims filed was 13,000, she noted during a news conference on Monday.

“We had six times that two days ago,” DeRosa said. “So this volume is something that we’ve never experienced before. And it’s frustrating. It’s horrible. it’s unacceptable. But we just ask that people remain patient.”

She stressed that people will get their benefits going back to the date of their unemployment, no matter when they actually end up filing.

‘The Best We Can’

After 9/11, then-Governor Geroge Pataki’s administration closed the state’s call center in Lower Manhattan due to the high cost of real estate there. Staff willing to move transferred to the remaining centers in Albany and Endicott.

Many labor department staffers are now working from home, with a skeleton crew coming into the two offices to help handle the flood of calls, according to union officials.

“We are doing the best we can with limited resources,” the state call taker said. “All you smell all day long is coffee.”

Early on during the crisis, she worked 12 days straight, but became sick with exhaustion. Now, she forces herself to take a day off after each eight-day stretch.

“We don’t have lives,” she said. “We are devoted to the job and the work. We don’t see our families. I haven’t seen my grandchildren in over three weeks. I’m used to having them with me every weekend.”

She typically handles about 25 calls each day. Many are time consuming, she noted: Most callers never filed for unemployment before and are not familiar with the system, she said.

Some cry when they describe how they worry about not having enough money to pay for food and other basics, according to the veteran labor department staffer.

“In this type of job you become a therapist and a shoulder to cry on,” she said.

Daly, who lives in Park Slope, said she’s worried about paying rent, especially because her roommate worked in the same spot and was also laid off.

“Our landlord was cool enough,” she said, “to take half rent for this month so far.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.


You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.