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Getting unemployment has been a nightmare for millions of people across the country

Pedestrians walk past closed shops along Lexington Avenue in New York City on April 7. About 1.2 million people in New York alone are now unemployed, in addition to 22 million people nationwide. | John Lamparski/Getty Images

With 22 million people trying to get unemployment at once, the system is overwhelmed.

Erin Bradford still hasn’t been able to file for unemployment insurance — more than a month after she first started trying.

Bradford, an actress in New York City who worked multiple jobs to support her acting career, turned to New York state’s unemployment office to file a claim for benefits when she lost her steady work on March 14. It has been a frustrating and opaque process for her, to say the least.

“I have easily called an average of 100 times a day since I began the process,” Bradford told me in an email. “It feels like it’s the early 2000s and you are calling into a radio station. Most mornings I wake up early so that I can be one of the first people to call in, but apparently a lot of people have had the same idea.”

Bradford is one of an estimated 1.2 million people in New York — and more than 22 million people nationwide — who suddenly found themselves out of work in the past several weeks and have been trying to access unemployment insurance as the coronavirus continued spreading across the United States. The staggering fallout of an economic crisis on par with the Great Depression has hit certain sectors of the economy, like restaurants, small businesses, and retail, especially hard.

The recently passed CARES Act expanded unemployment insurance eligibility, meaning most people who have been laid off will qualify for an additional $600 a week from the federal government. The bill also established a new program — called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) — that provides benefits for freelancers, gig economy workers, independent contractors, and self-employed individuals who previously were not eligible. The expanded benefits will continue until July, and members of Congress are already looking at options to extend it.

But the rollout of these benefits has been rocky and uneven. Some states, like Ohio, won’t even start accepting PUA applications until mid-May (retroactive pay was written into the law, so people who are unable to file until then won’t lose out on their full benefits).

The unemployment insurance fiasco is a perfect storm: a massive, crippling recession meeting many state programs that were underfunded and out of date to begin with. Programs in states like Florida — where former Gov. Rick Scott purposely designed the online system to make it hard for people to access, the Washington Post reported — have made it even more difficult for people to get help when they need it most.

Current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that just 4 percent of people who have applied in Florida have so far received unemployment benefits — that’s 33,623 people out of more than 850,000 applicants.

“These benefits are layered on top of a system that works well in some states and works terribly in others,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. “When a recession rolls around, how are people surprised that it’s hard to get benefits?”

Where you live can determine how soon you get your unemployment insurance benefits

Unemployment insurance benefits vary by state, but the amount you receive is not the only factor that depends on where you live. The process to get the money is faster in some states than others.

Vox was contacted by a recently laid-off worker named AJ in Florida, who said he and his wife were trying to access Florida’s online unemployment system with very little success.

“My wife and I try to apply for unemployment and the website does not load. The phone system also does not work,” he said. “There is no alternative, we just keep going in circles. We feel abandoned on all levels.”

It’s a completely different story in Washington state, where Stevie Hanna got the news she would be laid off from her job at a market research company on April 1, “which is not the day to fire people,” she added.

It was a stressful time; Hanna had moved to Washington for her job and had lived there only about four months. With some confusion about whether her work history made her eligible for benefits in Washington or in her former state of Michigan, it took about a week for Washington’s Employment Security Department to process her claim.

“Today everything is good, but it was touch and go for a week,” Hanna told me in a phone interview. “But at this point I’m impressed that they were able to get me through the system in a few weeks. … I have no idea how I got that lucky. I do feel very fortunate that I am in Washington.”

Brigit Stadler, a self-employed lifestyle and documentary photographer, also lives in Washington state. Her work is seasonal, and when the coronavirus hit, she had to cancel the cherry blossom photo shoots she had planned for this spring in Seattle. Because Stadler owns her own business, she couldn’t just apply for traditional UI right off the bat; she had to wait for Washington to set up its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

“I know others in other states are having a lot of difficulties filing, so I’ve basically just been checking for updates so as to not add to an already overloaded system,” Stadler told me. “I’ll be applying for benefits on Monday now that they’ve given us a firm date for when the system will be able to handle those of us who are self-employed.”

Stadler recognizes she’s one of the lucky ones; her husband is still employed and able to help support her and their two sons. But she was just starting to turn a profit with her business, and the loss of her photography income has been a blow to her efforts to pay down student loans and have extra income to help pay for the cost of living in Seattle.

“While we’re in a very privileged position, the lost income isn’t insignificant, as Seattle is still a very expensive place,” she said.

In more ways than one, Washington seems to be ahead of the curve with its response to the coronavirus. Not only have cases and deaths fallen in a state that was considered an initial hot spot in the US, but Washington also announced that its expanded unemployment insurance benefits — including the PUA program for freelancers — was scheduled to be up and running by April 18. That was a lot sooner than some other states.

In New York City, submitting her online application was just the first step for Bradford. Because she worked multiple part-time jobs, she had to call the unemployment office and speak to a representative over the phone to complete the process. Then the hard part began.

Bradford told me that each time she called, she got one of three responses: one telling her that her call couldn’t be completed as dialed, one automated message that all lines were busy, and finally, another automated reply that asked questions about her claim (which she answered using her phone’s keypad), collected her Social Security number, and transferred her to a representative. But unless someone is available at that exact moment, callers are disconnected and have to start the process over again, Bradford said.

“As someone who works in entertainment, I have many, many friends going through this process, and [I] can count on one hand the amount of people I know who have been able to get through the phone lines,” she added. Bradford got so frustrated that she called Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office directly.

The last Bradford had heard, New York had redone its website and was no longer asking applicants to call; instead, people would be contacted directly. As of April 17 — a month after she first applied — she hadn’t yet received a call.

“I will be okay for the next month or so, but if this lasts into the summer, that will no longer be the case and my savings will essentially be depleted,” Bradford told me. “It has made me more cautious with my spending, and even when things go back to normal, I and many many others will have to recover from this lost income.”

Many states had underfunded unemployment insurance systems before the coronavirus hit

Congress passing expanded unemployment benefits was just the first step. The process of actually getting that money into the bank accounts of people who need it is much harder.

States first have to wait for the Trump administration to issue guidance so they know they’re administering a benefit correctly. Then they have to set up their own policies and interpret them to decide who qualifies, Evermore said. Finally, states have to program the computers in their unemployment systems with the new information — and some states rely on mainframes and programming that haven’t been updated since the 1970s.

“The key aspects of UI were weak going into this,” said Andy Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “The IT infrastructure was weak; most states hadn’t gotten off of these ancient mainframes. The concern is, they’ve never done anything with this type of volume.”

A recent report by The Verge’s Makena Kelly found that at least 12 states use a decades-old coding language called COBOL in their UI offices, which means specific programmers who know how to use the language are needed to run it. With so many laid-off workers trying to access benefits at once, the old code on some of these systems is crashing websites and leading to other problems.

The process is more straightforward for people who have been laid off from an employer and are eligible for regular UI, but it’s very complicated for freelancers and others who are waiting for PUA programs to be ready for applicants. Washington state, as previously mentioned, is seemingly ahead of the curve, with a goal of getting its PUA program up and running by April 18. After setting an initial date of April 30, Massachusetts announced it would start accepting PUA applications this week. Officials in Pennsylvania said freelancers and gig workers could start applying by the end of the month.

But other states, including Ohio, are already looking at a May timeline before they can get their PUA programs ready to accept applications, and others haven’t released timelines. New York and Michigan, for instance, are asking people to submit PUA claims but are holding on to them until their programs are up and running.

There’s consensus in Congress that another relief bill is needed, and Democrats have been talking about either extending the extra $600 a week in federal aid or adding more weeks before an individual would be kicked off regular UI benefits (without the extra $600 per week), according to a senior Democratic aide.

But the problems that currently exist have led unemployment experts like Stettner and Evermore to say that Congress also needs to fund the system itself by helping states add more employees and get better technology to help connect people to the benefits they so badly need.

“It’s really not a sexy item to fund UI administration,” Evermore said, noting it’s an issue that has to compete against other demands, like education funding and cancer research. “The only times any improvements have ever happened with UI has been because a recession exposed holes in the coverage.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently told Vox that she recognizes the need, but also admitted it could take weeks before Congress is able to appropriate the money. (Congress is not set to return to Capitol Hill until May 4 at the earliest.)

“The states need resources in order to administer the UI,” Pelosi said. “Some are much better prepared than others or just have a different timetable. So one of the things we may have to do is get more resources to the state agencies that do this.”

In the meantime, the holes in the system are being blown wide open with a mammoth recession.


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