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Newly jobless in WNY join claims-filing crush

Meredith Wattle has spent a lot of time over the past week trying to navigate the state's unemployment claims system.

Wattle lost not one but two jobs due to the shutdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. One was in an information technology position at the University at Buffalo, the other was as a bartender. The two jobs went away in quick succession.

Wattle spent three days last week trying to file an unemployment claim through the Labor Department's website.

"Because the servers were so overloaded, it kept kicking me out halfway through filing the claim," she said.

Finally, last Friday – success. She filed her claim, but then received a message telling her she still needed to call the Labor Department to complete the process.

"I've tried to call for the next two days after that, but it still hasn't gotten through," she said.

The Labor Department is coping with a tidal wave of claims from people like Wattle. Last week, from March 16-21, the state Labor Department's unemployment claims website received over 2.27 million web hits, and its phone line received 1.73 million calls, said Deanna Cohen, a department spokeswoman.

"Our dedicated staff are doing the best they can and are committed to serving every single person, no matter how long it takes," Cohen said. "It is important to stress that everyone will get their benefits."

The Labor Department has implemented an alphabetical filing system – based on the first letter of a filer's last name – to try to manage the flow of claims.

Bill Dixon has never filed for unemployment benefits before, but plans to next week. He has worked at Delaware Manufacturing in North Tonawanda for nearly 15 years. That business, like so many others, had to abruptly shut down last week.

Last Wednesday, just before the full shutdown, Dixon's employer gave workers the option of using vacation time if they didn't feel comfortable coming to work. Dixon took advantage of that. When the full shutdown took effect, he opted to remain on vacation pay for this week.

"I had kind of seen what was going on with the system being overwhelmed," he said. "I took the option of taking one more week of vacation in hopes that when I call (next) Monday, I don't have as many problems as other people have had, because maybe the sudden rush has died down a little bit."

Dixon said the abrupt shutdown at Delaware Manufacturing was in stark contrast to the employment picture there before the pandemic.

"We were trying to get more and more people into the door," Dixon said. "We were trying to find skilled machinists."

Marquean Tucker learned via a late-night email last week that he was out of a job with Coast Professional, at the debt collection firm's Elma office. He had worked for the company for a few months.

"They did not say anything about us having a definite rehire," Tucker said. "It's up in the air."

Tucker struggled to get through the Labor Department's online system to file for unemployment on the first day he tried, but he succeeded on the second day. Now he's considering his next options for a job.

"If I had to get a better position doing the same line of work because I have experience in it, I would like to do that," he said. "But if something else, a better opportunity with more compensation, came along, I would definitely hop on that."

Dana Pecoraro's husband, Tom, works as a tattoo artist. But those parlors were shut down in light of the pandemic.

Even so, she said her husband is not rushing to file an unemployment claim. Dana, who is a sculptor, is still operating her e-commerce business, the Midnight Orange.

"We are not currently trying to get into the front line of the workforce, because we think that we need to leave those positions open for people who are not in this position, for people who can't do anything from home," Dana Pecoraro said. "We have some savings and that we feel we're OK to wait it out and let some other people have a first turn at it."

Dana Pecoraro noted that in his job as a tattoo artist, her husband has training in handling biohazardous waste. Those skills could be applicable to a future job, she said. "We think he would be a great future candidate to rotate in, in some way."

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