Elise Milner, an independent off-Broadway director and playwright, canceled a production originally set to open March 30 because of the coronavirus—taking with it $15,000 in revenue and lost sponsorships and work for 17 crew members.
Still, the inclusion of special jobless aid for independent contractors and gig workers in the stimulus bill approved by Congress gave her some hope she’d make her May rent. Then came the crush of people filing for regular unemployment insurance benefits, overwhelming the state’s website and staff before they could begin to address the new program for contractors.
A month later, New York state says it’s made substantial progress whittling down its backlog of claims by streamlining its application process and hiring thousands of additional staff. New York as of Tuesday had about 400,000 unemployment claims pending.
But “the majority of those are the pandemic unemployment insurance,” Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said at a Tuesday virus briefing. “The problem is that as we get the backlog down in the previous weeks, that continues to build. We’re still getting claims in real time.”
Milner, 48, say she’s not even being told when she will get help. Her husband, a dental assistant and photographer, also has been without work. The $2,500 rent payment, which she’s never missed before, comes up at the end of the week. Other monthly bills are looming.
“Online I’m being told that I’d probably have to wait six weeks, but I know a lot of people who put their claim in before mine and they’re still waiting,” she said.
A ‘Complete Disaster’
The $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act (Public Law 116-136), includes Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, known as PUA, for self-employed individuals and gig workers, who wouldn’t traditionally be eligible for unemployment benefits.
New York, the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. with fatalities climbing over 17,600 as of Monday, has paid out more than $3.1 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 1.4 million people since the crisis began six weeks ago, according to the state labor department. It’s not clear how much of that has gone to gig workers. As of Tuesday, New York hadn’t released information on how many PUA claims have been paid and how many are outstanding.
The backlog in part can be attributed to the timing of the federal law that took effect March 27, DeRosa said last week.
“The feds then put guidance out that said you have to apply for unemployment insurance, get rejected and then apply for pandemic unemployment insurance, which was a complete disaster,” DeRosa said.
New York, in an effort to avoid forcing gig workers to separately apply for benefits through both programs, started last week, let applicants submit claims through one application online or via phone. The labor department decides which category the applicants fall into, be it traditional benefits or PUA.
But there’s still a large backlog, as many people submitted partially completed claims, according to the department. If any information is missing or doesn’t line up with the department’s existing records, a representative must call the applicants to verify the information and fill in the gaps.
Along the way, labor department staff accidentally mailed out some personal information, including Social Security numbers, to the wrong applicants. The problem was caused by “human error,” after two sheets of paper were stuck to each other in a mailing that went out last week, DeRosa said.
The state Monday estimated three dozen people were affected, but DeRosa Tuesday said the number may be higher. The state is providing free credit monitoring for those affected.
New York rideshare driver Syed Husnain Zaidi, whose experience Bloomberg Law previously reported on, said he originally submitted his PUA claim on March 20, and still is without benefits. His application was submitted early, but he was told the state was still going to process his application.
He received a call April 13 from the agency, confirming some of his personal information, and stating his claim was all set. It’s been crickets since, he said.
Husnain Zaidi did receive his $1,200 federal stimulus check, which was a small help, he said. And his daughter, who worked for Sephora before the outbreak, was able to quickly apply for unemployment as a regular employee and was set to receive her benefits just days later.
The unemployment agency’s website provides no updates to his case and he is unable to submit a weekly claim, he said. “It’s very frustrating.”
State Doing Better Than Some
There are now 20 states processing and paying PUA claims, a federal Department of Labor spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law Tuesday. The department issued additional eligibility guidance for states Monday night.
Though it isn’t much help for those stuck in the queue, New York state has started processing PUA claims.
An additional 207,172 unemployment claims were filed the week ending April 18, up 1,591% from the year prior, according to the most state Department of Labor data released April 23.
“We have the number down, dramatically, but it was just a sheer function of quantity and volume,” Cuomo said.
“Yes, it’s frustrating as heck. Good news is, it doesn’t cost you any money. You will get the check for the same period of time,” he said of workers who have yet to receive benefits.
22 Busy Signals
Milner first tried to submit her application for PUA on April 1, but had trouble getting past the first page of the online application and was repeatedly booted off the site. She tried to call the state’s unemployment hotline for assistance.
“I tried calling 22 times the first time and I got a busy signal,” Milner said.
So she went back to figure out the online application on her own. Over the course of the next week, she tried to access the application late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends—all to no avail. Only by switching her computer system—a suggestion from a Reddit discussion forum—was she finally successful in getting through the entire application.
That was just the first step, because states including New York require a phone interview to get additional information.
The call from the state finally came—at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday.
Milner was asleep. Her phone was on silent.
A few days later, she received a second call. That one she didn’t miss. The caller confirmed her identity and other personal information on her application, but the person on the other line, though friendly, couldn’t provide much information about when she could expect her benefits to go through, Milner said.
Just in case anyone from the unemployment office were to call again, she said her phone doesn’t leave her side.
“I’ve been sitting by my phone day and night, waiting for call back. I won’t leave it for two seconds.”
—With assistance from Ben Penn.