Call state unemployment lines across the country, and these are the kind of things you're most likely to hear: “All representatives are currently assisting other callers”; “We are currently experiencing extremely high call volumes”; “Try your call again later”; “All of our phone lines are busy.”
Across the U.S., workers are getting laid off in numbers so massive that the country’s pre-existing unemployment infrastructure is having trouble keeping up. In the last three weeks, more than 16 million workers have filed for unemployment insurance, according to the most recent data published on Thursday. That includes 6.6 million people in the last week alone. To call those numbers unprecedented would be an unstatement. They are magnitudes higher than anything the country has ever dealt with before.
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And still, there are signs that even those millions of unemployment claims may be underselling just how many people have lost work since the pandemic shuttered everything aside from essential services and forced most people to shelter-in-place. Workers told VICE they are trying their best to file for unemployment but they are often unsuccessful, due to crashing websites with outdated programming and busy phone lines.
To see how widespread the problem is, VICE called unemployment lines in every single state in hopes of reaching a human last week. We only got through to actual people at two offices, in Arizona and Mississippi. (Mississippi's unemployment website directs people to call regional "job centers," and some of those phones were answered by sentient beings, though most of them were busy or didn't seem to still be active.) Most of the other state lines were met immediately with a busy signal. Others wired us through menu options, only to eventually end with automated messages that stated that no representatives were available due to “high call volumes” and to call back later. Some state offices put us on hold with no clue as to how long the wait would end up being. In other cases, so many callers were on hold that we weren't able to join the queue.
More than a dozen states had busy signals. In three states the calls failed, or the other end of the line simply hung up on us. Four states told us to call back later. Two of New Jersey’s numbers just put us through dark, eerie silence. Iowa’s office hung up after stating, “the wireless customer you are calling is not available.” North Carolina’s answering machine apologized for being “unable to provide personal service.”
The experience lined up with one furloughed Marriott employee in Charlotte, North Carolina, who has been unable to prove to the government he is not unemployed.
“I’ve tried maybe 20-50 times each day and the system just crashed. You can’t even log onto it. I’ve tried to create an account. I get to the point where I’m validating it and then boom it drops out completely,” the Marriott employee said. “I’ve tried calling the number. The pre-recording basically says, ‘Hey, we’re experiencing a high volume of calls’ and just cuts you off, so I have no idea when I’ll be able to file for unemployment”
Florida’s answering machine didn’t even try: “All of our phone lines are busy and we are unable to offer a call-back option at this time.” California told us that “we are receiving more calls than we can answer.”
Many lines rerouted people to apply online. One state, Massachusetts, requires people to fill out a form on its website in order to get a phone call back. Utah’s answering machine said that “all initial unemployment claims must be filed online.” Connecticut’s website states at the bottom: “Telephone assistance is not available for Unemployment Claims - please do not call 860-263-6000 for Unemployment Claims assistance.”
But for some people, those with certain disabilities or lack of English literacy, the phone may be their only option to file a claim. One person who recently lost their restaurant job told VICE that they didn’t have access to a computer or the internet in their apartment. “I’m trying to do all of this on a cell phone and a lot of these unemployment applications you can’t do on a smartphone. And when you go to call the number to file it over the phone it just disconnects, because the volume is too much,” she said.
Rather than safeguard employment and subsidize wages, as other countries are doing right now, the federal government decided to beef up state-provided unemployment benefits in the most recent stimulus bill. But with the influx of new applicants overwhelming the often-antiquated and overly-bureaucratic state unemployment offices across the country, people are finding it impossible to get through. This will likely only to continue as the new federal law adds more complexity to the benefits that people will receive. Some states, like New York, are trying to quickly revamp their systems to accommodate the influx.
Many people who were living paycheck to paycheck can’t afford to wait. And the busy phone lines are also causing long-term problems for some struggling workers. Lucinda, a 47-year-old server at a Las Vegas bar who is currently out of work, said she’s had trouble successfully collecting unemployment in past weeks because of issues with Nevada’s website. This week, she was able to complete it, but she noticed they gave her some additional instructions to make up for the site’s past mistakes.
“If you’re missing any weeks or if you’re late filing, they said to stop the process right then and there, call somebody at a call center to get your other weeks taken care of,” she said.
But after talking to other bartenders and waitresses, she decided against doing so. “They said it’s not worth it,” she said. “Just take the loss. Just go for the unemployment that you have now because you’re going to wait days to talk to somebody if you even get through.”
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