State unemployment offices scramble to handle jobless claims surge

Jessie Morancy uses her computer to fill out the application for unemployment benefits as she stays home with her nephew after being laid off from her job at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport on March 27, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. Mrs. Morancy said she lost her job as a wheel chair and customer service agent. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Joe Raedle

State unemployment offices around the country are being overrun as Americans apply for jobless benefits in record numbers.

Officials are scrambling to manage the surge in volume by instituting new procedures for filing unemployment claims, expanding staffing, fixing outdated technology and, above all, urging patience as websites and phone lines are jammed around the clock.

The response comes at a critical moment for workers affected by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Many are relying on unemployment benefits, which were significantly expanded by the recent $2 trillion relief package, as a financial lifeline.

“We know there are many Californians who are really struggling to provide for their families because of the massive economic impact created by the coronavirus,” said Sharon Hilliard, director of the state’s Employment Development Department.

“The EDD is employing all means necessary to get [unemployment] benefit payments out to those in need,” Hilliard added.

Unemployment claims doubled to 6.6 million last week, shattering a record that had been set only the week prior, when 3.3 million Americans filed for jobless benefits, according to Labor Department data released today.

The previous weekly record, 695,000 claims, had been set in 1982.

Managing the surge

New York’s unemployment office said call volume and web traffic have reached “unprecedented” levels. Its website crashed around two weeks ago amid a flood of filers.

“Please be patient and keep trying,” the website urges.

State and federal social-distancing guidelines have pushed many brick-and-mortar unemployment offices to close, driving even more traffic online and to call centers. Some states, like Texas, are offering virtual services to compensate for office closures.

Many states have waived red tape, like eliminating one-week waiting periods and work-search requirements, to get benefits to people faster, which has contributed to a surge in traffic.

I literally tried to do everything. The circumstances are horrific.

Lisa McGoldrick

laid-off Fort Lauderdale, Florida, resident

States also have expanded the hours during which Americans can apply for benefits to handle the increased load. Most are encouraging people to apply online to reduce call-center volume and during off-peak hours in the middle of the night.

Some states, like Michigan and New York, are asking people to file on certain days of the week depending on the first letter of their last name.

‘Horrific’ circumstances

Lisa McGoldrick, a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has tried applying for benefits online and by phone for hours every day since March 18.

She was laid off — along with about 100 other employees — the day prior from her job as a sales representative at a local bowling center, where she helped coordinate events, fundraisers and reservations.

Her hundreds of calls to the unemployment hotline have rung and gotten disconnected without a recorded prompt of any kind. She can’t get past the login page of the state website, which keeps crashing or directing her to a certain phone number to call — which then restarts the loop.

McGoldrick, 60, has tried logging in between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., to no avail. She even called her internet service provider to check for a faulty connection, but that wasn’t the issue.  

“I literally tried to do everything,” McGoldrick said. “The circumstances are horrific.”

“I understand it’s overloaded, but you still can’t get help,” she added.

‘Woefully outdated’

Each delay means an extra day of waiting for benefits to come through, as bills come due and families need money for necessities like food.

The CARES Act, which President Trump signed into law March 27, pays laid-off and furloughed workers an extra $600 a week for up to four months, and extends existing state unemployment benefits by 13 weeks.

The law also gives jobless benefits to previously ineligible groups, like self-employed and gig workers. They’re eligible to receive half their state’s average weekly unemployment benefit plus $600 a week.  

Unemployment offices are generally financed and staffed according to the unemployment rate the previous year, which had been hovering near half-century lows prior to the coronavirus crisis, said Sylvia Allegretto, co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley.

More from Personal Finance:
What you need to know about unemployment benefits in the coronavirus relief bill
Unemployment benefits for gig, self-employed workers stalled by confusion, delays
Coronavirus sick leave: Who can’t count on getting paid

“These systems are typically woefully outdated,” she said. “When you have a quick increase in unemployment for whatever reason, you’re going to be in trouble.”

California is employing a “historic combination of tactics” to respond to the crisis, including processing claims around the clock, redirecting hundreds of staff from across the department and state government, including some recent retirees with unemployment processing experience, and hiring more staff whenever possible, officials said.

Washington State is taking several measures to boost capacity, including a technology update, which it claims is “several weeks” away.

“We know that things are even more frustrating when our systems don’t work the way they should,” its website says.

Some states, like Michigan, are back-dating claims, meaning they’ll pay benefits retroactively to an individual’s date of unemployment.

But some, like North Dakota, don’t have such a policy. North Dakota officials urge residents to “file as soon as possible after becoming unemployed” for this reason — an impossibility if a volume surge prevents residents from applying.

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