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Record Jobless Claims Are Overwhelming States’ Aging Tech

Christine Cemelli was at home on March 16 when she got the text. Her husband, a chef at a fine-dining restaurant in New Jersey, had been laid off. Earlier that day, Governor Phil Murphy had signed an executive order restricting the operations of nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Restaurants could stay open only for takeout and delivery orders, but that didn’t make financial sense for her husband’s restaurant. Cemelli quickly launched into action.

“Literally, as soon as he texted me that he was getting laid off, I jumped on the computer,” Cemelli recalls. She had seen reports of layoffs around the county in response to the pandemic, and knew that with each hour that passed, it could become more difficult for her husband to claim unemployment benefits.

Cemelli began working her way through New Jersey’s online unemployment application system at 1 pm. She got about halfway through the application before an unknown server error kicked her out. None of her work had been saved, so she started again from the beginning.

Ten hours later, at 11 pm, she was still trying desperately to submit a claim. The site was even buggier at that point, Cermelli recounts; she couldn’t make it two pages into the application before it crashed. She woke up early the next morning to try again, but no dice. She encountered the same issues in the afternoon and evening. Cermelli considered trying to apply over the phone, but was dissuaded after family members said they had found that even more difficult. The department was so overwhelmed with jobless claims that it was telling many callers to try again another day.

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It’s a problem countless Americans have struggled with in recent weeks. As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the nation, state and local officials have taken drastic measures to curb the spread of the disease. Nearly one in two Americans are now under orders to shelter in place, forcing the closure of all nonessential businesses and many layoffs. Even businesses that remain open, like the restaurant where Cemelli’s husband Brett works, are cutting staff. Unemployment offices are struggling to keep up.

The US Department of Labor said on Thursday that a seasonally adjusted 3,283,000 people filed for unemployment last week, the highest total since the department started keeping track. Unemployment claims rose more than tenfold from the prior week, and were more than four times higher than the previous record, in 1982. More Americans have lost their jobs in the last week than during the first year of the Great Recession. The employment carnage of other natural disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, doesn’t even come close.

The coming weeks are likely to be even worse, economists say. The figures released Thursday reflect claims from last week, when states like California, New Jersey, and New York issued shelter in place orders. But other states didn’t follow suit until more recently. Surges in unemployment claims in these states won't be reflected in the most recent federal figures. And as people who lose paychecks curtail their spending, the economic effects will multiply.

“This is not going to be the only spike we’re going to see,” says Betsey Stevenson, former chief economist of the US Department of Labor under President Barack Obama. “We’ll see another rise again in the next week.”

The number of Americans who’ve recently lost jobs is likely even higher, Stevenson adds, because some people who had trouble filing claims just gave up; state websites are “just having problems managing the traffic.”

For Cemelli, it would take nearly 72 hours of entering and re-entering data before she successfully filed for her husband’s unemployment benefits, around midnight on March 18. She thinks staying up late helped, because there may have been fewer people trying to get through to the site. “I was amazed when I finally got through,” she says.

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Annalisa Plumb of Brooklyn, New York, hasn’t worked since March 13. After Mayor Bill DeBlasio ordered the closure of nonessential businesses in New York City, she was laid off from her job as a waitress. She tried to file for unemployment benefits the following morning, but quickly ran into trouble with her state’s website.

“Sometimes it wouldn't load at all; sometimes you'd get through a few steps and then the screen just says: Error. We cannot load the page at this time,” recalls Plumb. “Basically the system was crashing, and it was impossible to get through.”

Plumb tried repeatedly to file her claim, trudging through the steps of the application morning, noon, and night for days on end, to no avail. “It took me a full week of [trying] at various times of the day before I was finally able to get through and complete filing my claim,” she says. “Then I got a message saying that I needed to call the following number to complete filing my claim. But the number that they gave me is the general number that everybody is supposed to call to file for unemployment. And when you call that number, it just rings busy the whole time.”


She’s spent the last few days calling the phone line at all hours of the day, and has yet to get through to a human being. Sometimes when she calls she’s told that the number is no longer in service; sometimes, it’s an automated recording warning that because of the high incoming call volume, there will be a delay; other times, the phone just rings endlessly. As of Thursday, Plumb had not been able to file a claim.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the New York State Department of Labor did not respond to requests for comment.

Many states are grappling with similar issues. In Washington, site of the first major coronavirus outbreak in the US, the Employment Security Department’s website saw nearly 20 times more visitors on March 16 and 17 than it usually receives at this time of the year, while the department’s help line fielded eight times more calls, an agency announcement reported. “A dramatically larger number of employers are announcing coronavirus-related layoffs,” employment security commissioner Suzi LeVine said at the time. She also said claims were “coming in at levels that are similar to the highest weeks of the 2008-2009 recession.”

Florida governor Ron DeSantis said a recent survey of over 6,000 Floridian businesses indicated that most had laid off employees recently. In a press conference Monday, DeSantis said that the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity was receiving more than 20 times as many unemployment claims a day than usual

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Part of the problem, says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, is that many state unemployment systems are decades old and rely on out-of-date programming languages like COBOL. “They’ve slowly been working to upgrade to newer systems, but that process is long and difficult and takes many years in most cases,” says Evermore, who worked for the Department of Labor under the Obama administration.

Legislation passed last week will increase states’ administrative funding by $1 billion, which will hopefully help them rapidly scale up their tech and staffing to meet the increased demand. The latest stimulus plan out of Congress would greatly expand the number of workers eligible for unemployment benefits, and how much they can receive from states, which could put more stress on the system. The expanded program would cover self-employed people and part-time workers, among others. Under the plan, eligible workers could receive an extra $600 a week on top of the benefits offered by their state; state limits vary widely.

Evermore says most of the state systems that crashed are working again and people are able to file claims, “The states should be commended for not completely collapsing at this point,” she adds. “And I think that if they made it through the last week, now with $1 billion coming their way and some lessons learned, the crashes and blackouts that we saw last week are probably not going to continue to occur quite as heavily.”

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