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State Asking CUNY Staff for Help Handling Unemployment Applications

Junior's Restaurant and Bakery in Downtown Brooklyn was closed during the coronavirus outbreak, April 1, 2020.
A “closed until further notice” sign at Junior’s Restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, April 1, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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State unemployment staffers are so busy, the Cuomo administration is asking City University of New York employees and civil servants from other agencies to help with the deluge of paperwork and callbacks.

The beleaguered state Department of Labor needs additional staff to process some of the unemployment applications filed by tens of thousands of people suddenly out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Hector Batista, CUNY’s executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer.

“As our fellow New Yorkers continue to submit unemployment claims as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state needs volunteers to help process these urgent claims as quickly as possible,” Batista wrote in an email to central office staff on Thursday.

The callout for 100 CUNY volunteers comes after other state agencies, like those handling taxes and the Empire Development Corp., have already put out similar requests.

All the so-called volunteers are paid their regular state salaries and can work remotely, according to state officials. They must first get approval from their direct supervisors.

“If there is one thing this crisis has shown, it’s that New Yorkers step up when their neighbors are in need — and that is especially true for state workers,” said Jack Sterne, a Department of Labor spokesperson.

There are now 3,000 people working on the phones and processing applications seven days a week, he added. That’s up from the just 400 representatives in place before the health crisis.

‘Frustrating to Tears’

Earlier this month, after problems with the system, the Cuomo administration promised that anyone who had filed an application should expect a call back within 72 hours.

Yet, many people are still having issues, according to multiple social media posts, including a ”HELP US - NYS Unemployment Issues” Facebook group with nearly 29,000 members, and New Yorkers who spoke to THE CITY.

Penny Errico-Nagar, 62, who worked in a hair salon, has been trying to file for unemployment since March 16. The Manhattan resident said she reached a state representative on March 20, who told her to fax her 1099 tax statement to the Department of Labor.

She never got confirmation the agency received it but was then told to fill out a federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance application.

That filing is still pending, she said.

Meanwhile, she and her husband, who has a disability, have been forced to pay for everything with their credit cards. They were unable to make the rent for their Turtle Bay apartment for the first time in 30 years.

“It’s just the frustration of doing all of these things right and not getting anywhere,” Errico-Nagar said. “It’s frustrating to the point of tears. I’ve never gone this long without any income. It’s really frightening.”

On April 10, the state announced that it would call filers back as opposed to having them struggle for days to get through on the phone. The state has made more than 620,000 of those calls so far, according to Sterne.

But 4,305 of the initial batch of outstanding claims, dating back to mid-March, remain unresolved due to a host of technical issues, said Sterne, who declined to detail the total number of pending applications.

A veteran Department of Labor employee told THE CITY earlier this month that some people were so desperate to bypass the state’s clogged hotline they’d reached out to her on Facebook.

“I have to block and block and block,” she said of the social media requests, asking to remain anonymous.

A Streamlined Process

Cuomo administration officials point out the state has paid $2.2 billion in unemployment benefits to 1.1 million New Yorkers since the crisis started.

By comparison, California, which has double the population of New York, has distributed $975 million. Texas, with 10 million more people, has paid $400 million, and Florida, with close to the same population as New York, $150 million.

“So we have gone above and beyond in terms of ramping up,” Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, told reporters Thursday.

The majority of the backlog consists of gig workers, contractors and the self-employed, DeRosa added. Such workers, usually excluded from collecting unemployment insurance, are now eligible to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) under the federal CARES Act.

But that federal law didn’t go into effect until March 27, and it directed applicants to first apply for state unemployment benefits before filing for the federal program.

“We have now streamlined that process in New York,” DeRosa said. “That was this past Monday, we rolled out the new form which you apply one time and then we make the determination which pot you go into.”

California isn’t rolling out its system to allow people to apply for PUA until April 28 and the Illinois system is launching on May 11, according to officials in those states.

“I know this is hard,” DeRosa said. “It’s terrible. You’ve lost your job, you’re struggling to pay the bills. It’s hard enough without having to deal with bureaucracy and red tape.”

Nationwide, a record 26.5 million Americans lost their jobs between March 15 and April 18, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That includes 4.4 million who filed for unemployment last week.

In New York, Errico-Nagar says only one woman who worked at the salon with her has gotten money so far.

“Most people I speak to who are independent contractors aren’t getting anything or hearing anything,” she said. “I’m frustrated with this whole thing.”

Lost your job and have more questions? See our FAQ on navigating the world of unemployment benefits here.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.


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