States Can’t Keep Up with Surging Unemployment Claims from Coronavirus

The sudden avalanche of unemployment claims is crashing state websites.
March 18, 2020, 8:44pm
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This week, after several states announced the mandated closure of bars and restaurants to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, thousands of people in America lost their jobs. Among them are servers, bartenders, chefs, teachers, dishwashers, and more. Some have lost multiple jobs in one day, others have been given significantly reduced hours.

Left with no other choice as self isolation becomes more or less mandatory, many of these people filed for unemployment—or attempted to file for unemployment. With an influx of applicants beginning on Monday, state unemployment claims websites began to crash.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented increase in the volume of calls and web traffic for Unemployment Insurance claims,” said the New York State Department of Labor in an advisory. “This massive surge created intermittent interruptions in service.”

By noon on Tuesday, the New York DOL had received 21,000 calls, compared to 2,000 calls the entire day on the Tuesday before. On Monday alone, Massachusetts received nearly 20,000 new unemployment claims, compared to 18,000 in the entire month of February. In Ohio, 36,645 claims were filed on Monday. In Ohio, unemployment applications received this week increased sevenfold compared to the week before.


A poll released Tuesday by NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist found that 18 percent of U.S. workers either lost their jobs or had their hours reduced due to the coronavirus.

On Sunday night, Daniel Ng, a sommelier at a Korean steakhouse in Manhattan, received an email from the restaurant’s general manager informing him that he and many of his coworkers had been laid off. On Tuesday, he attempted to file for unemployment with the state, only to get as far as creating a login before the site crashed. Several of his attempts over the next two hours failed as he got to different stages of the application before it crashed again and again.

Ng had no luck until his coworkers gave him a tip: log in to the website the second it starts taking applications, at 7:30 a.m., and apply then. On Wednesday morning, Ng was able to file successfully.

In response to the increase in unemployment claims as a direct result of COVID-19, the New York DOL has extended its hours and implemented a new system that requires applicants to only file claims on the day of the week that corresponds with their last name. People with last names beginning with A through F may file on Monday, and so on.

In other states, many people are still unable to file claims. Jacqueline DeYoung, a bartender in North Carolina, is still struggling to file after losing both of her jobs as a result of coronavirus precautions. North Carolina’s Department of Commerce site crashed on her after she was able to make an account. Despite spending hours on the phone both yesterday and today, she still hasn’t been able to file.


Larry Parker, a spokesperson for North Carolina’s Department of Commerce, said the website issue has been fixed. “Yesterday we were experiencing issues with our online claims process,” he said. “We were quick to remedy the situation and still had over 4,700 people complete online claims.” Asked if the surge was expected given COVID-19 prevention measures, Parker said, “We don’t know if it was related to that or not.”

“I am in a group text with 15 other employees and none of them have been able to file for unemployment because the website isn’t working!” DeYoung wrote to VICE while still on hold with the North Carolina Department of Commerce on Wednesday morning. “This is SO scary.”

Megan, a server at an oyster bar in Chicago who preferred not to disclose her last name, also lost her job due to COVID-19 precautions. She hasn’t been able to file for unemployment for the same reason, this time with the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s (IDES) website.

“I am in a group text with 15 other employees and none of them have been able to file for unemployment because the website isn’t working!"

“IDES has received over 41,000 unemployment benefit claims, as compared to the same two days during the corresponding week last year, when IDES received 4,445 unemployment benefit claims,” an IDES spokesperson told VICE.

It is not only people in the service industry who are experiencing layoffs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tyler Campbell, a long-term ESL substitute teacher in New Jersey who has been temporarily laid off, spent the bulk of Tuesday on the New Jersey Department of Labor’s website attempting to file a claim, only to be met with 503 errors.

“We've received a record number of unemployment claims in recent days, which is taxing our system,” the New Jersey DOL tweeted on Wednesday morning. “[…] We share in the frustrations of our applicants. Our I.T. division has increased our system's capacity to process claims and serve your needs.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the IDES website stopped taking unemployment applications online. We regret the error.