Soaring unemployment numbers.
Missed rent payments.
Cars lined up for blocks to get free food.
Over a month into the state’s coronavirus shutdown, the signs of desperation are everywhere. The closures necessitated by COVID-19 have resulted in a second crisis: massive layoffs that have people scrambling to pay bills and support their families.
Given this economic turmoil, it’s no surprise some have started pushing to reopen the economy.
Count me among those who consider it far too early to ease most restrictions, although I’m on board with certain baby steps, such as reopening golf courses and allowing upstate hospitals to do elective surgeries.
That said, we dismiss or downplay the economic pain that millions are experiencing at our own peril.
In general, I’ve been amazed by how patient and accepting the vast majority of Americans have been of strict social distancing and shelter-in-piece guidelines.
The protests against these measures have gotten a lot of attention, but how representative of the public mood are they? A KFF Health Tracking poll released Friday found that 80 percent of Americans say strict shelter-in-place measures are worth it in order to protect people and limit the spread of COVID-19.
That support will decline if people can’t pay their bills for an extended period of time.
If we want public support for stay-at-home orders to remain high, we need to make sure it’s possible for people to stay home without descending into economic ruin.
We need to have compassion for those who have lost jobs or income, and to push for aid that can help them stay afloat. Above all, we need to understand that there’s a huge cost to what we’re doing right now, and that many rank and file workers are suffering.
I think most people do understand this.
What I found myself wondering last week was whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo understands it. When asked about the protestors at the Capitol last week, he said, “The illness is death. What is worse than death?” before eventually snapping: “You want to go to work? Go take a job as an essential worker. Do it tomorrow.”
That might be easier said than done, given the number of New Yorkers now looking for a job.
In the six weeks ending April 18, the state received over 1.4 million unemployment claims, compared to 77,191 in the same period a year earlier. In the Capital Region, 60,177 people have filed for unemployment – roughly 11 percent of the 529,700 people employed in January.
Adding to the struggles of the newly unemployed is an overwhelmed state unemployment system that makes just applying for benefits a time-consuming headache.
One article, in the Gothamist, recounted the travails of a New Yorker who called the New York Department of Labor 259 times in a single day hoping to file for unemployment benefits.
Another news report, out of Buffalo, told the story of a woman who spent 12 hours on hold with the state unemployment assistance line, and never succeeded in speaking with anyone before the office closed at 7:30 p.m.
According to the Gothamist, the DOL has increased the number of operators at call centers and expanded its hours of operation. But long delays are still common, and last week Cuomo acknowledged that the state can’t keep up with the volume of calls.
And it needs to be fixed ASAP.
People are losing their jobs through no fault of their own, and the safety net that’s supposed to cushion the blow isn’t providing timely assistance. There’s only so long people can go without money before they reach the end of their rope.
The layoffs aren’t over, unfortunately.
In the coming weeks, more New Yorkers are going to lose their jobs. We need to make it easier for them to weather the storm. If we don’t, there will be consequences, and the pain and desperation we’re already seeing will grow.
Are you a small business owner who has applied for federal assistance? I’m interested in hearing your story. Email me at [email protected]