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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

Here’s Where to Get Help with Unemployment Benefits in New York State.

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Ian Greer

In the last two months, millions of workers have learned first-hand just how difficult it is to access unemployment benefits. While the average wait in New York is 2-3 weeks, many claimants have been waiting 8 or even 9 weeks.

Why is it so difficult to navigate the unemployment benefits system? Even in normal times, workers can have difficulty accessing and keeping benefits if they are unsure whether they meet eligibility rules or have difficulty complying with work-search requirements, or if their claims are contested by their former employers. The situation is made much worse by the current extreme increase in the number of new claims is one reason. The labor force in February 2020 included 9.5 million workers, 350,000 of whom were unemployed. Since mid-March, New York State has received nearly 2 million initial claims. New federally funded benefits such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation make more workers eligible, but it also create more complexity in the rules.

The system is complex and claimants often need assistance. This post provides a guide to where they can turn.

1. New York State Department of Labor. The DOL’s website is where newly unemployed workers can file claims and access information. The DOL can also be reached through its telephone claims center (888-209-8124) and Unemployment Insurance Claimant Advocate Office (855-528-5618). However, by all accounts it has recently been very difficult to reach staff on the phone to ask questions.

2. Social media. For answers to their questions, thousands of workers are turning to local mutual aid groups on Facebook, and interacting with people who have had to find answers to the same questions. Two groups specialized in unemployment matters are especially useful. The Facebook group Help US: NYS Unemployment Issues has more than 44,000 members and has useful information for claimants structured as units. The Reddit community, ‘r/Unemployment’, has useful state-specific live chat areas with links to the most important state and federal government websites. Social media can provide useful connections with people going through the same problems, especially in your own area, but there is no guarantee of the quality of the advice you get.

3. Professional advice. Many worker advocates with legal training and years of experience handling unemployment cases can provide advice free of charge. This is especially important for people whose applications are rejected and they need to appeal the decision. The Legal Services Corporation funds many of these services; Ithaca, for example, is served by Legal Assistance of Western New York. LawHelpNY has a detailed directory of legal aid organizations and a LiveHelp service with online chats with volunteers. Free advice from attorneys can also be accessed through the New York Bar Association or the Empire Justice Center (800) 724-0490 ext. 5827). Your union or local worker’s center may also be able to help. While professional worker advocates provide extremely high-quality advice, some only serve clients below a certain income threshold.

4. Elected officials. Elected officials are reporting hundreds of phone calls from constituents, and some claimants are reporting quick resolution to their cases after calling their assembly members, senators, or Governor Cuomo’s office. Whether these calls caused the quick resolution is unknown.

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