GUEST COLUMN: Frustrated with unemployment system? You’re not alone

Challenges abound for those who've lost their jobs due to coronavirus outbreak

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

For The Sunday Gazette

Five million people in the United States filed for unemployment the week of April 6. I was one of them.

In New York state, more than 300,000 people applied.

The system, i.e. the human beings who work in the system, cannot handle the volume. It’s a combination of incompetence, unpreparedness and inability to scale up their service to meet the needs of the masses. In other words, a mess.

Thousands of us are left waiting in the virtual unemployment line, with no one to speak to, not knowing if our claim has even been received.

I know I’m not alone. But I sure feel like I am. I sit here at home, kids orbiting around, no one to commiserate with.

In the days when you could walk into a bricks-and-mortar unemployment office, at least there were other poor sods around to give you a boost.

Sure, the office was depressing as hell and you couldn’t listen to iTunes or watch the Cuomo show on TV while redialing for the 100th time, but you felt that when you reached the front of the line, you’d find a human being with answers.

Two weeks ago, I spewed all of my personal and employment information into cyberspace and I have no idea if it reached a human or if the human it reached is legit. Is the Department of Labor website even secure?

Is the guy named Nate who called me claiming to be a DOL volunteer a con man? I was so hungry to speak to a real person that I told him everything and thanked him. Profusely. Without verifying HIS identity. Am I going crazy? I never do that!

When will I get my benefit, and how much? He had no idea.

Before Nate called on Saturday, it had taken me three tries the previous Wednesday to submit my online application, only to get an automated message that in order for it to be complete, I’d have to call back to speak to a “specialist.” Each time I’ve called, I’ve gotten a busy signal or a message that no “specialist” is available. Is anybody out there who can tell me anything? 

When I checked the DOL website last Wednesday I learned there’s a whole NEW, more efficient, system for applying. So now what? Am I registered or NOT? And how do I find out?

Get it together, New York. Get it together, USA.

Hope comes on the local level. In a brief voicemail exchange earlier this month, my assemblywoman, Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, had told me to call her anytime. Halfway through writing this piece,

I thought to do it. She picked up!

Carrie was able to tell me something. Not much, but something. She assured me that Nate was my callback. The state has recruited staff from all departments to help with the backlog. 

Carrie was sympathetic. She named the experience for me: “opaque and frustrating.”  She said she knows what she knows not because DOL has given her any information, but because she is seeing patterns across the state. My experience is not unique.

She gets three to five inquiries a day, she said. And for every one of those, we figured dozens aren’t calling. They don’t know how. They don’t know they can. I know I can because my work has allowed me to know my assemblywoman.

And I have to admit, just talking to her helped. She told me to hang in there. I’ll get my benefits. It might take a while, but I will. And to call her in a week if my status hasn’t been updated.

Oh, and this: No one will notify me when or if I’m approved. It’s up to me to check my status and claim my benefit.

I just hope the system doesn’t crash or time me out when I make my claim.

Laura Rappaport was laid off in April from the Schenectady office of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. She is a former Gazette reporter and opinion writer, and lives in Saratoga Springs.

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