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Out of work because of coronavirus, struggling to file for unemployment

Some dial their state offices hundreds of times while others are met with frozen websites.

They live in disparate parts of the country but share the same experience: struggling to file for unemployment under the wave of coronavirus shutdowns.

Some dial their state offices hundreds of times, only to reach automated instructions that end with the line disconnecting. Others log onto websites that crash before they can file an application. Some endure the haltingly slow process unsure if they even qualify for the benefits.

From New York to Florida and Nevada to Michigan, states are grappling with millions of newly unemployed and furloughed workers, a situation that led to a $2 trillion bill last month that sets aside hundreds of billions of dollars in jobless benefits for people who lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic.

But chronic underfunding and aging technology have left states vulnerable to a crisis that resulted last week in a record 6.6 million unemployment claims.

“States are having a real problem right now,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank. “We are in a situation that would be an unbelievable stress test for even the most equipped systems — literally, a 1,500 percent increase in more than two weeks in the filers.

“It’s a situation that these programs never expected that they would find themselves in. But here we are.”

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In New York, the state Department of Labor experienced an unprecedented spike in call volume and website traffic, a spokeswoman said. Between March 23-28, the department recorded 8.2 million calls, an increase of 16,000 percent over a typical week. The department’s online filing system saw a 900 percent spike, from 350,000 visits to 3.4 million.

To handle the deluge, the department reassigned hundreds of staff members, added servers to expand the website’s capacity and extended the call center’s hours, among other measures. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologized to New Yorkers, saying in a news conference that the system wasn’t operating as “smoothly” as he wanted it to.

“It’s compounding people’s stress,” he said.

Among those people is Sharon Gucker, a laid-off substitute teacher and a single mother of three boys. Gucker, 51, learned March 16 from her Long Island school district that she would have to file for unemployment. She tried applying online but gave up after a day and a half when the department’s website kept crashing. She began dialing the department, cycling through a series of automated prompts until reaching the point where she needed to complete her application.

For this, a human was required. But no one was available until March 20, so she kept calling. Some 150 to 200 calls later, someone finally answered and Gucker finished the process. But while trying to file direct deposit paperwork online this week, she was locked out of the form after entering her mother’s maiden name. Calls to try to correct the problem ended as before — with a disconnected line.

Another New Yorker, Lori Kaplan, 64, estimated she dialed the department more than 700 times after shuttering her wardrobe supply company in Manhattan on March 16. Finally, she reached out to a local lawmaker and heard back from the labor department Wednesday. By then, Kaplan had applied for a federal loan program that would cover her and several employees. But it would also disqualify her from receiving unemployment benefits.

She’s unsure if she will qualify for the loan, though she’s hopeful.

“Not having to call UI all day is definitely a relief,” she said in a text message, referring to unemployment insurance. “What will be of my business, I have no idea. Everything right now seems like a crapshoot.”

In Brooksville, Florida, Lenora O’Berry, 72, was furloughed March 19 from her job filling online orders for a retail chain, and she was unsure whether she would qualify for unemployment. She tried filing March 24, but the site kept crashing, forcing her to start over each time. Her application was finally accepted March 31 at 11:47 p.m., she said.

To meet a crush of new claims, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity expanded call center hours, reassigned dozens of workers and sought to hire 100 more, NBC affiliate WESH reported.