Unemployment is stressful. Pandemics are stressful. The two together? Indescribable.
I helped many people with their claims during the 2020 Pandemic. I advised clients and worked with them through the application process, the waiting, contacting the Department of Labor (DOL), waiting more, getting creative about outreach to the DOL, waiting more, appealing denials, waiting again, hearings over the phone, endless waiting on the DOL, and with many issues that arose due to an uncontrollable and unpredictable catastrophe.
A tsunami of unemployment claims flooded the DOL system when Covid-19 hit New York. The best way to describe what happened to the unemployment claims system would be driving in bottle-neck traffic. But in addition to the expected frustration, every car was near empty on gas, no car had air conditioning, and everyone in every car had to use the bathroom. There were many unemployment claims being filed and not enough DOL staff, time, or communication.
The sub-issues involved new laws that Congress quickly passed to alleviate the mass unemployment problems. Everyone had the same amount of experience working with these laws: None. In addition to regular Unemployment Benefits or Insurance (UI), we also had Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA expanded UI to just about everyone who normally couldn’t get UI like people who didn’t make enough or independent contractors. So if you got denied UI, you could probably get PUA. We also got the famous Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), which gave an extra $600 per week to anyone who received at least $1 of UI or PUA per week (That ended on July 31, 2020). There was also Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which extended the length of time a person could receive unemployment benefits. Then, in August 2020, we started dealing with the Lost Wages Assistance Program (LWA) that should give people an extra $300 for most of August.
After newly unemployed claimant would file over the phone by calling 1-888-209-8124, Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 7:30 pm; or, more commonly, online at https://unemployment.labor.ny.gov/login. Everyone quickly learned that calling the DOL was like trying to catch sunlight: It was a miracle to get a hold of. The better way to file was online. You would make a NYS ID account, enter the online portal, and fill out the application. This step is where many of the problems began. The immediate problem was trying to get through to the DOL by phone. Imagine how many people were calling the same number at the same time, all the time.
Typical Error: Being “ready, willing, and able to work.”
The application answers determined whether the DOL to paid a claimant and how much. One of the justifications, or defining parameters, of unemployment benefits is that it pays people who are out of a job solely for economic reasons: It’s not their fault that they’re unemployed. Specifically, this means that a person is not disabled (different benefits apply), is not retiring (different benefits apply), and is trying to find a job (bingo). So, logically, the application includes a question asking whether a claimant is ready, willing, and able to work. “YES” is definitely the right answer here. Many people misunderstood this question during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of people answered “no” and that error almost completely blocked their road to benefits. However, the pandemic somewhat excused this mistake.
Why The Mistake?
New York’s economy almost completely shut down overnight in March. Covid-19 and the necessary government actions that followed made it impossible for a significant amount of businesses to remain open and, therefore, many more New Yorkers were out of work because there was almost no work. They were unable to work in a plain meaning of the phrase. But they were still able to work in the way the Unemployment application meant. Many claimants tried calling the DOL to fix the problem but trying to call the DOL was a problem in itself. Another option was to message the DOL through the online portal, but it still took awhile to get a reply. Thankfully there is an appeal process (more on that later).
Claims Bottleneck: Too Many to Process
In the beginning, after getting denied for UI, a person would then apply for PUA. A claimant could not apply for PUA until they got denied UI. The problem with that was the delay in getting denied for UI. The overwhelming number of claims created a bottleneck that prevented many application reviews. This then prevented the DOL from denying or approving many applications. Eventually, the DOL changed the application, along with the whole website, so people could apply for UI and PUA at once. That didn’t do much for people who were already waiting, but it certainly prevented a lot of new frustration. But the phones kept ringing and people were left on hold trying to find some way to reach a real person who could help.
A Similar Error: Whether a claimant was able to telework.
The PUA application also included a question about whether claimants could telework. Telework overtook society during the Spring of 2020 and it provided a “new” way to maintain a business through online work. Claimants needed to answer “NO” on the telework question. This question was asking whether someone was actively employed and teleworking. Many people answered “yes” because they thought the DOL was asking whether they could telework; as if the DOL was offering a telework job. Altogether, these questions caused a lot of confusion, mistakes, phone calls, and added to the mess. Again, many people then had to call or message the DOL to fix the problem, but contacting the DOL was itself problematic.
Problems After Submitting Application: No Weekly Certifications
Many people forgot to “certify” each week. After getting approved for benefits, claimants need to certify weekly that they’re actively looking for work, are still unemployed, and are still ready, willing, and able to work. Certifying or claiming benefits was done either by phone (different number) or through the DOL portal online.
No certifying meant no payment. Forgetting to certify was an extremely widespread issue that wasn’t addressed by the DOL for a few weeks. Each week that passed by was, for many people, another week without income, another week of stress, another week of waiting.
Sometimes, the DOL would call claimants about their missed weeks or other issues with their application. They would still be calling today if they didn’t come up with a mass solution (It doesn’t matter when you’re reading this). The main issue with these calls was that they came any time and from private numbers. Many people would miss the call or not pick up without knowing that they just missed the opportunity to resolve their claim and start getting payments.
Finally, the DOL sent out DocuSign forms by email to everyone who had not certified for a few weeks. This provided a quick and easy way for most people to fix the certification issue and get their claims up to date. It worked. In a few days, they got all the payments they were missing; For most people, that was it. They just had to keep certifying weekly and they got their UI or PUA rate and the additional $600 PUC until July 31st. After July, it was just the UI or PUA payment, and the LWA $300 to cover August. Most people got to relax a little. But there were still an infinite amount of issues that a simple DocuSign form couldn’t fix.
Less Common Issues: Pandemic Unemployment Headaches
The typical scenario was frustrating enough. The less typical circumstances required even more patience, unusual routes to the DOL, and a little lawyering. It’s impossible to list every unique issue because everyone has a unique situation. There were problems involving many different things like a claimant’s wages, severance pay, residence, receiving other benefits, and even identity theft. But there were some common solutions.
Unusual Routes to Unemployment Benefits
Calling the DOL was futile; messaging the DOL through the online portal seemed more productive until there was no response for a few days; but luckily, these weren’t the only ways to get your claim reviewed. Some people were also trying to fax and mail documents. It’s unclear whether these methods were helpful but, at that point, why not try everything?
One of the best resources during the worst parts of the unemployment crisis was actually the DOL Twitter. The comments section allowed many people with similar issues to discuss solutions. The DOL even replied sometimes. They did what they could do to provide updates and prevent fraud, but social media had its limits. The biggest limitation was probably the same issue that the Claims Center had: high volume. The DOL Twitter was good for getting updates and some general guidance, such as to answer phone calls from private numbers because the DOL was calling, and then for the mass DocuSign fix. But, too many people were tweeting for the DOL to respond to everyone. Fortunately, there was a system in place to serve an unlimited number of people.
Democracy In Action
One of the most common strategies used to get a claim reviewed was to contact local representatives: State Senators and Assembly People. Not only was this method common, but it was actually effective. Calling local representatives for help with an unemployment claim placed people on a fast track to payment. Whether or not a person actually talked to the politician, the office put the claimant’s name and information on a DOL priority list. Someone from the DOL then contacted the claimant and resolved their claim. 2020 is an election year. It has been one of the most polarizing political years in American history. But 2020 also proved, at least in New York, that our government works for the people. America: a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It was nice to experience politicians as public servants and not partisan grandstanders. Unfortunately, some people still had more unresolved issues.
A Little Lawyering: Request for Reconsideration/ Hearing
If you didn’t have a simple application or your employment history was complicated, there was a good chance the DOL denied your application for both UI and PUA. Everyone received a Monetary Benefit Determination. It was a letter that stated whether they were approved and their weekly benefit rate, or whether they were denied and the reasons for denial. A claimant had 30 days from the “Mail Date” to file a request for reconsideration or a hearing. Fortunately for many, this 30 day deadline was waived because these letters were either mailed out late or took much longer than normal to be delivered. The combined request gave an application a second chance. If the DOL still denied it, then a claimant could get a hearing.
Hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic adhered to social distance policies: They were done over the phone. It was fortunate that they were done at all. A hearing is like a mini trial, complete with swearing to tell the truth, questioning, cross-examination, evidence, and closing arguments. They provide a great opportunity to explain issues and resolve a claim. Another good aspect of a hearing is fairly quick decision. A decision should be mailed out within a week. This was all still true even when they were done over the phone.
A claimant could go into a hearing with or without a lawyer. Either way, the case for benefits must be made. The DOL actually facilitate the preparation process. They send claimants a formal notice of the hearing along with a packet of all the information and facts that can be raised and they explicitly state what will be the issue(s). After reviewing the packet with an eye towards what is relevant to the issue(s), a claimant could send the DOL any missing documents that would help their case for benefits. This could be letters from a former employer or something that explains or excuses the issue(s) at hand. The facts should be clear. But to be safe, a claimant could research past decisions on the DOL appeals website to get an understanding of what documents and arguments may help.
The End…Is Near
The DOL did not approve every claim. Even the ones they did approve had several obstacles to payment. Even the successful claims that were receiving payments sometimes developed new issues. As I’m writing this I’m getting new cases to take on with new issues that I haven’t seen. COVID-19 challenged New York on infinite levels. This was just an overview of the pandemic’s effect on Unemployment Benefits in New York.