More than six weeks after the coronavirus hit New York, the Department of Labor is still straining under the weight of processing over 1 million unemployment claims, causing an unprecedented logjam for New Yorkers without jobs.
The department has released more than $3 billion in unemployment insurance and processed 1.4 million completed applications, Department Commissioner Roberta Reardon said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters.
Since statewide social distancing and closure orders took effect, the department has taken steps to update its website and application process, launch a callback system to reach those with partially completed claims and increased the number of staffers working on unemployment claims by 675%, from 400 to 3,100.
“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from this extreme stress test of our system,” she said.
“We want to be prepared should this ever happen again.”
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The state put out a request for proposals to revamp its unemployment application system in 2017.
The project was approved and was meant to be completed in five years, but was only in its first year when the pandemic hit, said Reardon.
Some workers who filed for unemployment in mid-March have said they had yet to hear anything about their claim, even as their bills pile up. Others who couldn’t finish their claim online were told they’d get a call from a representative within 72 hours. The calls never came, some applicants have said.
“Everybody who needs a callback is getting a callback,” Reardon said.
“New Yorkers' needs are immense and immediate, but so are our actions. I want you to know we are all working as hard as we can to deliver you your benefits.”
The bottom line: Every person will receive their benefits back to the time they were furloughed or laid off, she said.
Reardon answered a number of questions on the minds of New Yorkers as they navigate the unemployment process:
Why can’t I finish my claim online?
After analyzing over 1 million claims, the top reason they are partially complete and cannot be submitted in full is because the employee didn’t list a federal employee identification number, or entered it incorrectly, Reardon said.
A phone call from a Department of Labor representative is required to correct it.
“This significantly slows down the application process,” Reardon said.
Businesses have a legal obligation to provide their employees with this information, and every New Yorker who is applying for unemployment should have it on hand.
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I was told I would get a call from the department. Why haven’t I gotten one?
If you haven’t gotten one, you will.
About 650,000 callbacks have been made so far, Reardon said.
The department has made an effort to reach people in chronological order, based on who applied for unemployment first, she said.
The process may be more drawn out for those applying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — which covers people like gig workers and self-employed individuals who aren’t typically eligible for unemployment — because it can be harder to assess their monetary determination.
Sometimes several of the phone numbers the department has on hand for an individual are inaccurate or no longer used by that person.
Be sure to pick up the phone if your caller ID shows “private caller;” it could be a representative calling from a remote location.
Sometimes the individual doesn’t pick up a representative's call; in that case, representatives call again later.
Some people have submitted up to 20 applications, which means the department is having to determine which are duplicates. That slows down the entire process.
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My claim is finished and submitted. Why haven’t I received my benefits?
In regular times, the amount of time needed to process claims is more predictable, Reardon said.
Every person’s process turnaround depends on whether the application was filled out correctly and whether the department has all information needed from the claimant.
Make sure all information is provided and entered correctly, including your federal employee identification number, social security number and name.
It is at least a two- to three-week waiting period from when a claim is first filed to when benefits hit your bank account.
The fastest way to receive your benefits once released is to make sure you’re receiving them via direct deposit if possible, Reardon said.
If an individual has a Department of Labor account, he or she can check on the status of their unemployment claim at my.ny.gov.
It’s hard to know just how many people are waiting for their unemployment insurance, or how the number of PUA claimants compares to UI claimants, because claims are constantly being completed every day, Reardon said.
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The website says I have to claim an unpaid waiting week before my benefits start, even if my work loss was coronavirus-related.
The waiting week was originally waived for only those whose loss of work was directly related to COVID-19, but it is now waived for everyone, Reardon said.
Claimants can dispute their waiting week at any time while receiving unemployment.
That said, do not call the department with questions about your claim unless absolutely necessary, she said.
The department is still fielding thousands of calls and must get to the most urgent ones first, she said.
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Some people received unemployment mailings that included information on other claimants. What happened?
Earlier this week, the department found that about 114 people received a department mailing that contained the personal information of other claimants, Reardon said.
The problem was caused by a mechanical error related to a faulty sorting machine, which has since been taken out of commission.
Free credit monitoring and identity theft surveillance was offered to everyone who was included in the mailing, including those who didn't report an issue, Reardon said.
“This is unacceptable; it never should have happened, and certainly not now,” she said.
If you know of someone who was affected by the problem, they should reach out to the department.
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Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. She investigates stories about your consumer rights, including scams, negligent landlords, safety issues and wayward businesses.
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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Unemployment Q&A: New York labor commissioner answers questions on callbacks, delays