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COVID-19 Overwhelms Unemployment Office

By Michael Forte

Maurice Waldron, a 58-year-old resident of the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx had his workplace close its doors due to the pandemic. He is just one of over 1.8 million new unemployment claims to flood the New York State Department of Labor system since mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began accelerating. “It’s been four weeks and I still haven’t gotten anywhere,” said Waldron. “I don‘t know what else to do – the website is broken and it’s impossible to get through on the phone.”

State officials report 3,000 workers have been brought on board to help process claims, but many citizens are still having trouble with the process.

The unemployment rate nationwide has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression. New York recorded the largest loss of private sector jobs since April 2009. As of May 15, 2020, more than 193,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in New York City, with more than 19,000 deaths. According to Governor Cuomo’s “Four Phases of Reopening” businesses, Waldron’s workplace can reopen in Phase 3 on May 23, 2020. New York City has yet to begin Phase One.

“Just when I think I’m getting somewhere I get hung up on,” Waldron said. “They say all operators are busy and I’ll receive a call back, but that never comes.” Waldron is not alone many others have reported calling hundreds of times over several weeks and have not been able to get through to a representative

Steven McMahan was furloughed by his non-essential job on May 1 but was unable to apply for unemployment benefits through the website. “Every time I’m ready to submit, some glitch happens and resets all my information.” After several weeks of trying on his computer, McMahan tried applying over the phone. “I was able to apply through the automated menu, but then when I was told I’m getting transferred to a ‘claim’s specialist’, I got hung up on.” McMahan, unable to get in contact with any agent from the Department of Labor for further assistance, got a tip from a friend to call the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“Finally, I was able to speak to someone at the governor’s office,” McMahan explains. “The secretary told me they’d look into my case and get back to me, but I’m still waiting for that.” McMahan is not alone in his frustrations; more than 150,000 applicants are still waiting to receive their benefits, according to X source.

Fernando Murcia, a student of Lehman College, also experienced problems with the system when helping his father file for unemployment. Murcia’s father found the phonelines impossible to navigate through, “There’s so many steps,… he was [eventually] able to get it done. He’s receiving $430 weekly now.”

Larry Waldron, Maurice’s younger brother, started receiving benefits just a week after easily applying over the phone. He considers himself lucky, “When they said I’m getting transferred to a claim’s specialist, I actually did. They asked a couple more questions and told me I ‘should be good to go’.”

Leah Morgan-Holmes, a resident of Riverdale who was furloughed from her job in mid-April, was able to successfully apply for unemployment benefits, receiving it just five days after initially applying. Morgan-Holmes had no major trouble applying, save for some confusing questions. “One question asked what reason I needed benefits, but my reason was not one of the choices. Instead, I chose ‘lack of work’ and that seemed to be valid enough.”

Morgan-Holmes’ workplace, though considered an essential business, couldn’t afford to keep her on payroll. “As things start opening up again and the virus dies down, I’ll probably have to return back to my job – most other places won’t be hiring for a while,” she said.

Amanda Gutiérrez, an essential worker, is still on the job but is worried. “I’m terrified going out and having to interact with people,” she said. Gutiérrez has two children at home, ages 4 and 6. According to the state, she will not be eligible for unemployment benefits if she leaves her job at her own discretion. Gutiérrez’s job is providing her with masks, gloves, and other sanitary products, but it’s everyone else she is concerned about. “I’m doing my part, but people still come in (to my job) without a mask and think that’s okay.” The New York City Parks Department staff has been distributing more than 7.5 million free masks at more than 50 parks around the city since the beginning of May. “There’s no excuse not to wear one,” she said.

Gutiérrez, being a single mother, leaves her two children at home with her older sister when she goes to work. “I’m blessed to have my sister helping me out. I have friends who are in similar situations as me but don’t have anyone to watch their kids when they have work. I feel abandoned I feel abandoned by our leaders.”

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