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Advice to those desperately seeking jobless benefits? 'Patience and persistence'

Cheryl Coldicott has $400 in her bank account and $680 due this week in rent. 

Since getting laid off from her bartending job two weeks ago, the 51-year-old single mother has tried “at least 50 times” to file for unemployment benefits. 

But like thousands of newly unemployed workers across New York State, she has repeatedly dead-ended in a system unprepared for the sheer number of New Yorkers seeking unemployment in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. According to new federal jobs data released Thursday, more people have lost work nationwide in the past two weeks than in the first six months of the Great Recession. 

Deluged by desperate workers, New York State's online unemployment portal has repeatedly crashed. Department of Labor hotlines often return an “out-of-service” message. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged extensive outages and lags in the system, and he vowed that “literally hundreds of people” were working to fix it. 

But as wait times continue to balloon over days and weeks – and as the first week of April ushers in payment due dates for utility bills, mortgages, credit cards and rents – people like Coldicott are asking how far they will fall before the safety net catches them.

“I don’t know how I’m even supposed to pay my phone bill to keep calling them,” she said Monday, through audible tears. “It’s crazy. Twenty-three years I’ve been a single mom, and I’ve never been in a situation like the one I’m in right now. I’ve never not worked … I don’t know what they expect people to do here.”

'Unprecedented inundation'

In six interviews with The Buffalo News – and in tens of thousands of comments on Facebook and Twitter – New Yorkers have painted a consistent, vexing image of a system wholly unprepared for the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under that system, workers who have lost jobs in recent weeks are entitled to newly expanded unemployment benefits, including an additional $600 in weekly compensation over a longer eligibility period. Applicants submit new claims online, by phone or through a combination of the two methods.

But the online form often crashes or times out, applicants say. And calls to a state hotline – when they connect – route applicants through a menu of pre-recorded options before asking them to call again. Between March 23 and March 28, more than 8.2 million calls were placed to the unemployment hotline, according to the Department of Labor, while the state’s online filing system logged a record 3.4 million visits over the same period.

“You can call an infinite number of times and still not get through,” said Michael Bundt, a 28-year-old Orchard Park resident laid off from his job as a sales consultant at West Herr. At one point last week, he and his wife called the state hotline 150 times in less than an hour.

The problem, state labor officials say, is the "unprecedented inundation" of New Yorkers applying for benefits. New federal data show that, for the week ending March 28, more than 366,000 New Yorkers filed for unemployment – an uptick from the previous week of more than 350%. Nationally, almost 10 million people have filed new jobless claims since March 15, when a number of states, including New York, began implementing new social distancing and shelter-in-place requirements.

In a statement to The Buffalo News, Deanna Cohen, a Labor Department spokesperson, said the department has responded to the surge by hiring and reassigning hundreds of workers to staff its unemployment hotline. The department has also extended call center hours, added 20 additional servers to support surges in web traffic, and asked applicants to call on specific days of the week, according to the first letter of their last names.

In the meantime, a pale pink “alert” box on the top of its website asks applicants to “please be patient” – a recommendation echoed by the Western New York Council On Occupational Safety And Health, a worker advocacy group that recently published a guidebook to worker benefits and the novel coronavirus. Unemployment benefits, when they are approved, are backdated to the day the applicant lost his or her job, not the day the claim was filed.

“My best advice is patience and persistence,” said Brian Brown-Cashdollar, the council's program director. “I would suggest try[ing] the website on very off hours … it’s only going to get more clogged for the near future.”

'Putting off every bill I can'

But in a region where more than 13% of residents already live in poverty, patience is often less a virtue than a mask for desperation. According to Prosperity Now, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates on behalf of low-income people, more than half of all Buffalo households do not have savings sufficient to cover three months of basic expenses.

Based on those figures, as well as recent household financial reports by the Federal Reserve, it is likely that more than half of all newly laid-off workers in Buffalo lack the savings to cover a $400 expense, estimated Russell Weaver, an economic geographer with Cornell University’s Buffalo Co-Lab. For context, the median monthly rent in Erie County is $836, according to Census Bureau estimates.

“As you might expect,” Weaver said in an email, “any sort of extended backlog at DOL in processing unemployment claims has the potential to further devastate workers trying to grapple with sudden layoffs and job losses.”

Today, those workers include people like Bundt, who has some savings and a small severance from West Herr. But he fears that in a month he will face “a more urgent situation.” They also include people like Nathan Wolniewicz, the former sous chef at downtown’s Lucky Day Whisky Bar, who between dozens of calls to the Labor Department has strategized what bills he can afford to pay late.

He can make rent this month, he figures. But water and electric will have to wait.

“The industry I’m in – I wasn’t exactly rolling in money when I had a job,” he said. “Now that I don’t have one, I’m trying to be prepared for the foreseeable future. I’m putting off every bill I can.”

For Coldicott, the former bartender, those calculations have proven both “embarrassing” and “emotional,” she said. She has never paid rent late or gone without a job. Lately she has had trouble sleeping and has gotten up early to call the Labor Department over and over again.

In addition to the rent on her Burlington Avenue apartment, her phone and utility bills are both due soon. While New York State froze evictions and foreclosures in response to the pandemic, Coldicott said she doesn’t trust that measure to protect her. She has begun looking for work at warehouses and retail stores.

“You have to put herself at risk, expose yourself to the coronavirus, even though you don’t want to get your family sick,” she said. “But it’s better than being broke – which right now, I am."

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