More than 16 million Americans have suddenly found themselves unemployed, thanks to the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus outbreak.
In the last week of March alone, the New York State Department of Labor received 8.2 million calls — a 16,000% increase compared to its typical week. The department’s online portal drew 3.4 million visits, an 870% increase, crashing the system.
“This volume is something that we’ve never experienced before, and it’s frustrating. It’s horrible,” said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But there is some hopefully good news for New Yorkers who have spent hours trying to get through clogged phone lines: You no longer need to call the State Department of Labor to complete your claim. A representative will call you, according to DeRosa.
The state rebooted its unemployment system overnight Thursday and released a “streamlined” online application Friday morning. Now representatives will call people directly if there are complications.
With an eye on the changes, here are answers to some of the readers’ most frequently asked questions about navigating unemployment during the coronavirus crisis:
Have unemployment benefits expanded because of the coronavirus crisis?
Yes. If you lost your job or were furloughed for reasons related to the pandemic, you’re now eligible to collect weekly unemployment payments. Federal law now allows you to receive benefits if:
• Your place of employment is temporarily closed due to the outbreak.
• You are quarantining with the expectation of returning to work.
• You left your job due to the risk of exposure or infection.
• You had to stop working to take care of a family member with coronavirus.
If you are still employed, but have lost wages due to the coronavirus, you do not need to — and should not — quit your job to receive coronavirus-related benefits.
If I’ve lost my job, what do I get from the federal stimulus package?
Whether you’re newly unemployed or have been for some time, the recently signed CARES Act will provide you with an additional $600 per week, on top of regular weekly payments, until July 31. You’ll be able to receive payments for 13 weeks longer than what is usually covered (39, instead of the usual 26 weeks for New York).
On April 8, Cuomo announced that New York will begin distributing those funds immediately.
“The federal government says they will reimburse us for it but people need the money now in their pocket,” he said.
You can begin receiving these $600 payments after getting through the system to file your claim for unemployment benefits.
Under CARES, the federal government will also provide a one-time payment of $1,200 to individuals who earned less than $75,000 in 2019, plus $500 for each child under 17. Folks with higher income will receive less, and those who made $99,000 or more will receive nothing. Vist the IRS website for more information.
What if I’m a gig worker or a freelancer?
Workers who are usually excluded from collecting unemployment insurance — including the self-employed and independent contractors — are now eligible to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) under the CARES Act
Here’s a complete list of who is eligible for PUA. If you are able to continue working your job from home, or are receiving paid sick leave or other paid leave benefits, then you are likely not eligible for PUA.
What if I work part-time?
If you’ve lost work and are working less than four days a week, making $504 or less, you are eligible for unemployment benefits in New York.
But partial unemployment benefits are calculated based on the number of days you work, not the number of hours. So, even if you work only two hours each day for four days a week, the state unemployment system considers that working four days, and you would not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Nicole Salk, senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Legal Services NYC, recommends consolidating your hours.
“If you have reduced work, try to put it all on one day, because then you maximize your benefits,” she said.
For every day you work, you lose access to 25% of your maximum unemployment benefits. So if you work three days a week, you get 25% of your benefits. If you work two days a week, you get 50% of your benefits, and if you work one day a week, you get 75% of your benefits.
So how do I apply for unemployment?
You can start your claim application by going to the state Department of Labor website and following the step-by-step instructions here.
Most importantly, now, if there are any issues when you file online, a representative from the department is supposed to call you within 72 hours, according to DeRosa.
“They’re going to be reaching out directly to the people so that people don’t have to go through this infuriating process of calling and getting busy signals,” she said on April 9.
Due to the overwhelming number of people filing, the state recommends you apply on a certain day, depending on the first letter of your last name. Monday is for those whose last name begins with A - F; Tuesday, G - N; Wednesday, O - Z; and Thursday, Friday, Saturday is for all last names.
If possible, try to file your claim online first, given the clogged call centers. Labor Department officials also say they have reduced by half the number of reasons someone would need to speak to a representative, with the intention of processing more claims online.
Make sure you write down the email address and password associated with the account you create, and keep it in a safe place — a simple tip that many forget, Salk noted.
If you are self-employed, but have lost income, you should follow these instructions.
You can use this calculator to estimate your weekly benefits. The current maximum benefit is $504 a week.
What materials do I need?
Before you sit down to complete your online claims application, gather as much information as you can about your employment. Know when your last day of work was, have as much information about your employer on hand as possible — including their employer identification number, if you know it — and have a pay stub nearby. If you want to do direct deposit, you’ll need your bank routing number and account number.
Make sure you have as many of the following materials as possible:
• Your Social Security number
• Your driver license or Motor Vehicle ID card number (if you have either)
• Your complete mailing address and ZIP code
• Your phone number
• Your Alien Registration card number (if you are not a U.S. Citizen, and have a card)
• Names and addresses of all your employers for the last 18 months, including those in other states
• Employer Registration number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer (FEIN is on your W-2 tax forms)
• Your copies of forms SF8 and SF50, if you were a federal employee
• Your most recent separation form (DD 214), for military service
And if you’re unable to print web pages, have a pen and paper handy, too.
What if my driver’s license has expired or I don’t have one?
“You do not have to have a driver’s license, and you do not have to have an ID,” Salk said. “You should be able to apply without it.”
What do I need to know about this online form?
Some terms or questions in the claim form may be confusing. One of those terms is “lack of work.”
Any kind of layoff, furlough or even a decrease in the number of opportunities for someone like an Uber driver, all count as a lack of work.
If it’s true for you, “lack of work” is the best and most clear cut option to help you get your benefits in a streamlined way, Salk noted.
Other terms that Salk said confuse people are “availability and capability,” especially in a time like this, when someone who is stuck at home may not feel able to work.
“You have to be available to work and capable to work to get unemployment [benefits],” she said. “You may have kids at home, but you can technically still do work at home, so if that’s accurate for you, you should choose that you are ‘available and capable’ of working.”
If you are technically able to do some kind of work from home, you need to select that you are available and capable of working. Otherwise, you will not be able to complete your claim online and receive benefits.
I have to complete my application over the phone. What do I need to know?
If anything went wrong or presented a complication with your online application, you may need to speak to a representative by phone. This is where many people have been running into challenges.
The state Labor Department’s Telephone Claims Center number is 888-209-8124. It is staffed Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
If you are hearing impaired and being assisted by another person, call 888-783-1370. If you use TTY/TDD, call a relay operator first at 800-662-1220, and ask the operator to call the Telephone Claims Center at 888-783-1370.
The department’s website notes that TCC staff “cannot help you with issues related to your NY.gov account, such as difficulty logging in, changing your personal information or resetting your password.” For help with your NY.gov account, call 800-833-3000.
Salk said that if your employer doesn’t report employee wages to the state “on the books” or in the traditional way, you’ll need to talk to a representative in order to file.
People who don’t speak English or Spanish also need to file their claim over the phone, since the online application is only in English or Spanish.
What if my claim is partially filed, but I can’t get through the phone lines to complete it?
Anyone who already filed a partial claim does not need to refile and no longer needs to keep calling to finish their application. If this is your situation, a representative should call you within 72 hours, according to De Rosa.
What if I miss my callback?
According to department officials, a representative will call you back again.
I’ve completed my claim, when will I get my check?
Unemployment claims can take two to three weeks to process from the date you applied.
What if I’ve been unemployed for several weeks now, but just got through the system today?
You will receive back pay from the day that you first lost your job if you qualify for either unemployment insurance or pandemic unemployment assistance.
So do I just get the extra $600 a week from the stimulus? I don’t have to do anything extra?
Yes, you just get it. The additional $600 per week will be automatically added to all unemployment benefits, whether you qualify for regular unemployment insurance or the newly expanded pandemic unemployment assistance.
If you’re in the system to receive unemployment benefits of any kind, you will receive the extra $600 from the CARE Act each week until July 31. But you can’t get this extra cash until you’re able to successfully file your claim with the state.
Once I get the benefits, is there anything else I need to do?
Yes. You will need to certify your benefits every single week, or you will lose them. This means that you need to log into your account and verify that you are still eligible for the benefits each week. You can do so here.
What do I do while I’m waiting for my unemployment benefits?
There is relief assistance for individuals and organizations at the city, state and federal level in the form of extended deadlines, moratoriums and assistance.
New York City has compiled a list of general resources for New Yorkers who are unemployed due to COVID-19 or need some help with food, mental health access and more.
All New Yorkers are entitled to three free meals a day at more than 400 locations across the city. To find a location, visit the city’s free meal program website or text “NYC FOOD” to 877-877.
Check out THE CITY’s food resource guide for more information on accessing food programs, what to do if you’re homebound and need food, or if you want to help those who need/supply food.
Student loan relief
The CARES Act includes major student loan relief, including no federal student loan payments, no interest on federal student loan payments, and the suspension of student loan debt collection. The temporary student loan relief will be active until Sept. 30, 2020. The CARES Act does not include private student loans, nor does it provide any student loan forgiveness.
Mutual aid groups
Many people have turned to their fellow New Yorkers for help. “Mutual aid” groups are simply self-organized groups of people who offer services where they can in exchange for something they may need themselves — like food or other supplies. Mutual aid NYC is a network of local groups that helps direct people to the services by providing a map of neighborhood resources and a list of all mutual aid groups across the city.
This Facebook Group dedicated to navigating unemployment in the city has Q&A sessions and a community of folks available to help answer unemployment questions.
Immediate hiring opportunities
Jobs in several key industries are being posted to the NY Hire Now website. You can filter by city, title and company to find openings suited for you. The state Department of Labor is also hiring. Applications for the DOL were extended to 4/24.
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