Noelle Teska first knew she may lose her job as a bartender at a cinema in Syracuse when some of her colleagues circulated an article about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate to close bars, restaurants, and other large venues in an effort to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. Sure enough, the 31-year-old and her colleagues were told that the company could not keep them on and that they should apply for unemployment.
“That day was spent in a blur but when they sent me home that day I realized. I don’t have a job,” Teska said. “I just started panicking.”
As someone who lives paycheck to paycheck — like more than two-thirds of US Americans — Teska has little savings and is worried about paying her bills in the coming weeks. She’s started being paid to donate plasma to make a little bit of income. She has a preexisting condition that makes her more prone to respiratory illnesses, and she lives with her sister and her prediabetic father. She’s tried to pick up some other work, like delivering food, but is worried about infecting her father.
Teska immediately tried to apply for unemployment benefits both through the website of New York State’s Labor Department and through the Labor Department’s hotline — and was unsuccessful for 11 days straight.
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Sometimes Teska would get through the first few pages of the websites, typing her information into forms, and then the website would crash. Once, she was able to get all the way to the last screen and then, when she hit submit, the website returned an error page and logged her out of the system.
She tried calling, but that didn’t work. She heard that a friend only got through after more than 100 tries.
Teska posted about her situation on Facebook, and some suggested she try on different weekdays. The state has directed people to apply on the website based on the first letter of their last name in order to stagger people calling in or applying online, according to Deanna Cohen, a spokesperson for the New York State Labor Department. Teska was finally able to complete the online part of her application on Friday at 6:30 p.m., though she will still have to call the unemployment hotline to complete her claim.
“I was getting stress migraines cause I couldn’t get through,” Teska said. “I don’t fall asleep until 1 a.m.”
Labor department websites and hotlines around the country have been crashing as record numbers of people have applied for unemployment.
“We have streamlined the process so that fewer individuals have to file by phone and more can file online to minimize the call volume. However, sometimes certain claimants have to verify their claims by phone,” Cohen said.
In a typical week, the phone line gets 50,000 calls. “So far this week (Monday-Thursday) it is at 6 million,” Cohen said.
Similarly, the department’s website usually gets 350,000 hits per week, but Monday through Thursday of this week it got 2.4 million.
With an unprecedented influx of applicants, state labor departments have had to implement longer operating hours, hire more staffers to intake new applications, and more.
“We have added 700+ staff to man the phone lines and hundreds more are being hired and trained,” Cohen said.
As the coronavirus spreads throughout the country and as stay-at-home policies leave many people without a paycheck, more state and local leaders have also expanded unemployment benefits. In Michigan, for instance, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended them to cover not just recently laid-off employees, but also people who cannot go to work because they have to care for someone who was infected, workers who are sick, quarantined, or immunocompromised, and people who are first responders and fall ill due to their work.
This led to a massive increase in applications, Jason Moon, communications director at the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, told BuzzFeed News. In the state, applications increased by roughly 2,250% from one week in early March to the next — from 5,000 on average to 129,000 last week.
Kelsey Brianne, 29, stopped working her job in a call center because she has chronic illnesses that compromise her immune system. When she heard that Michigan’s governor had expanded unemployment benefits to cover people like her, who were worried and anxious about working in confined places close to other people because of preexisting conditions, she got a note from her doctor and left her job right after.
She’s been trying to apply for unemployment since last Thursday, and tries to log into the “website a couple of times a day.” While the process has been frustrating, she told BuzzFeed News that there must be quite a few people who are dealing with the wait.
“Some things are going to take a while. And having that patience is really important,” she said.
Dewey Weiss, 37, is an electrician and union member in Saginaw, Michigan, lost a job assignment four days after landing it. As an electrician who works on jobs that can last days or months, he’s used to short bouts without work. Previously, he saw unemployment benefits as a last resort.
But the dangers of exposing himself to the virus in his line of work while being the sole breadwinner in a household of four — himself, his wife, and his two children — was enough for him to decide to apply for unemployment.
“There’s very few jobs that are on and continuing right now,” he said. “Staying safe and seeking other employment that’s not possible without putting myself in danger right now.”
Accessing the benefits website and simply changing his password took several days, Weiss said. He still has not been able to successfully apply but has heard that others who set their alarms to wake up and log on at 3 or 4 a.m. were able to get their applications through.
To deal with the influx, the Michigan Labor Department is implementing mitigation plans similar to those in New York. Those include staggered application systems based on the first letter of a worker’s last name and expanding the window during which workers can apply for benefits “from 14 to 28 days from the date of their work stoppage,” according to a statement released Friday.
“Our staff is working as hard as we can and we understand that people have been hit hard by the economic repercussions of the coronavirus. We ask them to be patient and we are using every resource we have to ensure they receive the benefits that they deserve,” Moon said.
For some, the process has not been as stressful. Madison Hill, a 23-year-old who moved into her parents' house after graduating with a master’s degree in museum studies, was planning on working a retail job for a few months before moving into her own apartment. But she was let go a few weeks into the job.
“I was hoping for a bit more [time on the job], but I absolutely understand where it’s coming from. But it’s still a punch in the gut, and especially right now,” she said. “It’s not like you can jump to something else.”
She was able to file for unemployment benefits a week ago. Her plans to strike out on her own, though, are now on indefinite hold.
The language around being paid for plasma donation has been updated in this post.