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WNYers in limbo struggle as they wait for delayed unemployment checks

After being laid off for more than a month, Christopher Mattucci was relieved to finally receive his first unemployment check last week.

But then he saw he'd been paid just $300, less than a quarter of what he was due.

Since then, he has called the state Labor Department hundreds of times and left multiple emails. He has never gotten through and never heard back.

"I seriously am thinking about offering a reward for anyone who reaches a live representative to transfer them to me," said Mattucci, 45, of North Tonawanda. "My back is against the wall."

Though he has asthma, his next step is to go back out and look for whatever work he can find. His plan is to isolate in a separate room at home to protect his diabetic wife and sick mother from any possible exposure to Covid-19.

Mattucci is just one of thousands of people in New York who have struggled to obtain unemployment benefits after losing their jobs to the coronavirus shutdown.

Some claims are pending but in limbo. Others require follow-up with a phone call from the state Labor Department that has been promised but never been made. Still others have been held up by any number of glitches and errors. Filers complain of waiting on hold for hours on end, only to be disconnected once they get through.

The problems and complaints are almost as as unique as the number of claimants themselves. People are frustrated, they're scared and many are struggling to make ends meet.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday acknowledged the widespread problems, but said the state has made tremendous progress in the face of an "impossible" situation. The state has streamlined the unemployment application twice, teamed up with Google to upgrade its website, and increased the number of people handling claims from 1,000 to 3,100.

"Just to put this in context, we have done far more, far faster than I think any other state in the country and the number of people who have gotten assistance is mind-boggling," Cuomo said. "But none of that matters, right? For a person there’s only one check that matters and that’s their check and I get that."

So far, the state has processed and completed more than 1.4 million unemployment claims, according to Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor. That's more than four times as many people as applied for unemployment benefits during all of 2008, the year of the financial crisis.

On Saturday, the state Department of Labor said it had disbursed $3.1 billion in unemployment funds since the coronavirus pandemic started impacting businesses in early March. Texas, by comparison, has disbursed $400 million and California, which has twice New York's population, has disbursed $975 million.

“Every state is facing major challenges when it comes to unemployment, but in New York we are upgrading our systems in real time while delivering benefits to New Yorkers faster and more aggressively than any other state,” state Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said.

Most of the outstanding claims are those that fall under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provision of the CARES Act,  which was signed into law March 27 by President Trump, DeRosa said. Cuomo blamed those problems on a two-step federal application process that DeRosa called a "complete disaster" requiring applicants to apply first for conventional jobless benefits, be rejected, and then apply again under the new pandemic program. The state has since rolled out a simplified process that allows workers to apply only once, and made faster progress, she said.

But there are plenty of problems among those with both PUA claims (which cover gig workers and independent contractors) and traditional unemployment filers alike. The Facebook group Help US - NYS Unemployment Issues has more than 27,000 members who comment more than 24,000 times a day, looking for answers and advice.

Alexander Powell was already living on the edge of poverty before he lost his job working at Zumiez in the Boulevard Mall. He filed for unemployment nearly six weeks ago and was approved for benefits, but has yet to receive a single payment, he said.

Now, after falling four weeks behind on the room he was renting bi-weekly in University Heights, he's homeless and has been bouncing between shelters and friends' houses.

"I'm really, really embarrassed. I'm just trying to remain humble through all of this," said Powell, 27.

Buffalo Mutual Aid Network, a peer-to-peer volunteer coalition organized on Facebook, is helping provide him with food and basic toiletries – whatever will fit in his backpack. Powell believes the Labor Department is doing its best and acknowledges that the current circumstances are "new to everybody."

"I just, I feel overwhelmed. I'm stressed out," he said. "But things could be worse. As bad as they are right now, they could still be worse. I just have to keep reminding myself that everything is going to get better in time."

After Meagan Valenti, a bill collector in Tonawanda, and her construction worker husband applied for unemployment benefits, they were told by the state that they would receive phone calls within 72 hours to finish their applications. That was two weeks ago.

To make ends meet for their 4-year-old daughter, they've borrowed money from Valenti's brother. They haven't paid their mortgage or utilities. They used the last of their tax return to pay their car insurance hoping they'll get back to work soon and have a vehicle to get there.

Valenti has also started an extensive collection of vegetable seedlings in her kitchen, hoping to grow enough food to feed her family through the summer in case things don't turn around any time soon.

"We were stretching as far as we could before the pandemic but this has put us at high risk now," said Valenti, 30.

After weeks of trying to finish an online application that required a call back from a Labor Department rep, Mary Lane of Hamburg said she finally heard back and was told that she was "all set." She was told to start certifying for her benefits each week and to watch for a confirmation letter in the mail. But when she tried to log her first weekly check-in, she got a notice that her claim was still unfinished.

"I still haven’t received a dime," she said. "I also have never received the letter in the mail she told me to look for almost three weeks ago. So I honestly have no idea what to do."

The Labor Department's backlog has also turned simple complications into big obstacles.

Kelly Bird, a furloughed furniture salesman from the City of Tonawanda, had her benefits approved by phone April 2. She moved into a new house a week later, but the debit card needed to access unemployment funds never arrived with her forwarded mail.

Bird was eventually able to request a replacement card through Key Bank April 16 and was told it would take 72 hours to process. She still has not received a card or an update.

"I can check to see that they’ve put the money in, but I don’t have the card so it’s useless," said Bird, 33. "And our governor keeps saying 'Relax, it’s all retroactive.' Well, that’s great, but I’m seeing this money being added and I can’t use it."

Meanwhile, Mattucci is losing hope he'll ever see unemployment benefits.

"We were told to be patient and hang in there and lean on relatives to get through this time. We were assured all money would be paid out," he said. "They will not tell us when this will be resolved, there are just promises of hope and no answers."

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