Business

‘Unprecedented’ number of unemployment applications amid COVID-19 pandemic

The New York State Department of Labor has been overwhelmed with an “unprecedented” number of unemployment applications amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

An increasing number of New Yorkers out of work due to the virus outbreak are turning to the state to stay afloat. A spokesperson for the NYSDOL said that, between Monday, March 16, and Saturday, March 21, officials logged nearly 2.3 million visits to their website and over 1.7 million phone calls during a record-breaking surge. Typically, they field an average of 10,000 calls a day, but reached seven times that last Tuesday with 75,000 calls, according to data released by the department Monday.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented increase in the volume of calls/traffic for unemployment insurance claims. This surge has created intermittent interruptions in service,” the labor department said in a Facebook post. “Our dedicated staff are doing the best they can and are committed to serving every person, no matter how long it takes.” 

On Monday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone reported that approximately 700 businesses surveyed have reported nearly 4,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed. Many of those employees, he said during a conference call with reporters, are in the bar and restaurant industry, an already a vulnerable segment of the local economy.

State labor officials said unemployment insurance claims are surging by 1,000% in some areas of the state, but did not provide a breakdown of unemployment claims by region.

Those numbers are projected to climb after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that mandates all nonessential workers to remain at home as of Monday. The order excludes pharmacies, grocery stores and others.

Unemployment trends have been steadily declining for several years in New York, but could now rise sharply as a result of the public health crisis. According to figures released by the state labor department before the outbreak began, Long Island’s unemployment rate fell to 3.9% in January 2020, down from 4.1% in January 2019.

The NYSDOL announced several measures that have been put in place to accommodate the influx in unemployment applications, including server updates, extended hours, telephone filing hours on Saturdays and hiring an additional 65 employees at its Albany call center.

“Providing unemployment benefits is our No. 1 priority,” the department said in a statement. “Everyone who is entitled to benefits will receive them in a timely manner.”

Those interested in filing for unemployment benefits are asked to observe the following guidelines for calling the labor department, based on the first letter of your last name: A-F, Monday from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; G-N, Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; and O-Z Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Additional hours are available Thursday through Saturday for claimants who missed their filing day.

Officials said that filing later in the week will not delay payments, which are retroactive to the first day you were out of work. Weekly unemployment benefits in New York are based on your salary history and max out at $504 per week.

The state is also waiving the seven-day waiting period for unemployment for people out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Act into law, which will expand paid sick leave and free coronavirus testing, food assistance and unemployment benefits for health care workers.

The bill also provides funding for programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and suspends some guidelines to qualify for food stamps through traditional SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) supported the measures as a member of the Congressional Bipartisan Coronavirus Task Force. “The ongoing outbreak of coronavirus is an ever-evolving situation that has had an extraordinary impact on our everyday lives, which is why this legislation is a measured, common-sense, but extraordinary proposal to assist Americans under the circumstances,” Mr. Zeldin said in a statement. “Every level of government has a responsibility to work together to ensure Americans have the resources they need to take care of themselves and their loved ones and come out stronger than ever on the other side.”

New York lawmakers also enacted a bill to provide paid sick leave for workers who are quarantined due to the outbreak.

Some essential industries have announced hiring initiatives despite mass layoffs in other industries. A sign hung on the doors at ShopRite in Riverhead over the weekend announced that they are hiring across several departments storewide. 

A spokesperson for ShopRite said Monday that the COVID-19 outbreak is leading to an unprecedented demand at their supermarkets. “We are looking to fill a variety of positions across our stores and warehouses,” said Daniel Emmer. “We recognize that during these challenging times, our stores can play a role in providing job opportunities for individuals who may be displaced from their current place of employment. Our goal is to keep our stores fully staffed so that we can continue to provide the best possible customer service to shoppers and support our communities during this difficult period.” 

Stop & Shop is also hiring, Stefanie Shuman, a spokesperson for the grocery chain, said Monday.

Ms. Shuman praised Stop & Shop associates for doing “extraordinary work” to serve communities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Together with Local 1500, New York’s grocery workers’ union, Stop & Shop gave all current hourly union workers a 10% pay raise and two weeks of paid leave for employees who are required to quarantine by health and government authorities or by the company so they don’t have to tap into their own paid time off.

The grocer is taking additional steps to reduce contact with cashiers and customers in stores, Ms. Shuman said. “Because the register area doesn’t allow for the cashier and customer to maintain a distance of six feet apart, per CDC guidelines, plastic guards are being added for protection,” she said.

The NYSDOL has announced expanded telephone hours at 1-888-209-8124. Hours are as follows: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information about New York’s coronavirus related paid sick leave law, visit www.ny.gov/COVIDpaidsickleave.