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'It’s a freaking circus': Unemployed Americans share tales of an overloaded system

Adriana Belmonte
Associate Editor

M.B., a customer service representative at a major retail chain in Florida, has been furloughed since the beginning of April. And although M.B. applied for unemployment immediately upon being furloughed, the status of her application still says “pending.”

“On May 4, one month [after initially applying], I’m finally able to get another application through on the main website, which took at least an hour because of the site constantly crashing,” M.B., who asked that only her initials be used to protect her job, told Yahoo Finance. “It said in 72 hours to check back while they process my claim. My status did not change for a week!”

Adding to the resulting stress, M.B. is pregnant with her first child, and the money she had saved to care for her baby is now going towards paying her bills. 

Customers wearing protective masks wait in line to enter a Japanese supermarket during the coronavirus pandemic on May 20 in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

“I’m trying not to break down but it’s hard between my car payment/insurance, food, and phone — I barely have enough to cover my rent for this month and next month,” M.B. said. “I’m constantly checking the mail, my bank account, and the DEO website to see if I have some type of money coming through. I haven’t received a dime from state unemployment nor the $600 (stimulus check) from Trump.”

Americans like M.B. are finding that filing for unemployment hasn’t been an easy process amid the coronavirus pandemic. More than 38 million Americans have filed jobless claims in the last two months, and not all of these Americans have received the payments — even if they filed for them months ago. 

Several Americans shared their unemployment claims process struggles with Yahoo Finance, along with documents to corroborate how their experiences played out. (We aren’t publishing their full names in order to protect them, as private citizens, from any form of harassment.)

(Yahoo Finance/David Foster)

‘It’s a freaking circus’

Some states have been hit particularly hard by unemployment claims.

Florida has seen the highest number in the country. And although the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) stated that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) waived the job search requirements for the unemployed until May 30, M.B. said this is not the case, at least for her. 

“I was still asked to claim weeks, and when I did, it created pending issues, apparently because I didn’t search for work during a pandemic,” she said. “It was supposed to be waived and clearly [wasn’t], because it created pending issues on my claim, which now shows that I’m disqualified from receiving any payment from the weeks I was clearly unemployed. They didn’t even approve me for the full lousy $275, even when I receive $0. The DEO and the governor are not on the same page. It’s a freaking circus.” 

Asked by Yahoo Finance, the DEO stated: “Thank you for reaching out to the Department of Economic Opportunity. I wanted to ensure that you saw the press conference yesterday afternoon with Governor DeSantis and Secretary Satter, which can be viewed here. Additionally, the slides for that presentation can be viewed here. If you did not see our most updated press release, that can be viewed here. We have also redesigned our Reemployment Assistance (RA) Claims Dashboard, and developed a video, which helps explain all aspects of the dashboard. That video can be found here.”

Florida currently has the highest number of jobless claims. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

I reached out maybe 1,000 times’

M.B. isn’t the only American encountering these issues. 

Max, a photographer in California, didn’t get any unemployment benefits for over six weeks. Over 1.7 million California residents have filed claims since the pandemic began.

“I tried calling the California [Employment Development Department] maybe 75 times,” Max, who asked to be referenced only by his first name, told Yahoo Finance. “Once every 15 times or so, I can get into the automated system. I still haven’t figured out how to talk to an actual human being.” 

Although Max finally received his debit card in the mail from the Employment Development Department with his back benefits, he doesn’t feel like he got enough information throughout the whole process. 

There are over 1.5 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

“There’s no central source for straightforward answers about when and how I can expect to get my benefits,” he said. “The most useful information I have gotten was from the large Unofficial California Unemployment Help group on Facebook. … The process of getting into Harvard was easier and less stressful than the process of getting unemployment benefits as a 1099 freelancer in California.”

Ryan, a Navy veteran based out of Buffalo, N.Y., was between jobs when the pandemic and ensuing layoffs hit. He filed for unemployment on March 9 and didn’t hear anything for over two months.

New York’s backlog of unemployment claims has been under the microscope, particularly after the state’s Department of Labor released data that found over 44,000 out of the more than 1.2 million claims in the state have still not been paid.

“I reached out maybe 1,000 times,” he told Yahoo Finance. “Mostly dead-end phone calls, a couple emails to my local representatives as well.” 

Finally, on May 14, Ryan got through. 

“It was a very simple 3-4 questions that they needed to finish my claim, which for some reason I wasn’t allowed to finish myself online, since I was a first-time applicant,” he said, noting: “They didn’t give me a timeframe for when I’ll actually be receiving the payments though.”

Ryan was lucky to have money saved to help cover payments on debts for his car and credit cards, and his student loans are all paid off. 

A long line to receive free food from a food pantry run by the Council of Peoples Organization in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Status pending

Not everyone has been as relatively fortunate as Ryan.

When Keyonna, a preschool teacher based out of Celebration, Fla., was furloughed on March 18 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, she immediately tried to file for unemployment. 

Keyonna thought the process would be easy, but, it took her nearly two weeks for her unemployment application to actually get through the website.

“This process has been a nightmare from the very beginning,” she told Yahoo Finance. “The site continued to crash every time I would try to log on. If I did get through to start the process, I would automatically be logged off the site. I wasn’t able to complete my application until March 29.”

And then, after a month of waiting, Keyonna’s application was deemed “ineligible” without reasoning. She reapplied and is now waiting once again.

Keyonna was deemed ineligible. (Photo courtesy of Keyonna)

“My current application is still pending,” she said. “So this has been almost two months without pay. The same situation happened to my co-workers as well. Frustrated, already a month behind on bills, as I am living paycheck to paycheck like so many Americans, I had to pull my son out of his home daycare. It has been hell. Not knowing if you will have money to pay your bills, constantly on the site and phone for hours trying to get help.” 

Keyonna isn’t sure what she will do if she goes another month without an unemployment check. 

‘I haven’t ever been able to reach someone’

M.B., the retail customer service rep, said she made hundreds of attempts to get through to Florida’s DEO to no avail. 

“Let’s say I’ve called 40 times in one morning of one day, and even more times throughout the day trying to at least be connected to someone,” she said. “Multiply that by 30. The DEO opens up at 7:30 yet even when going through the prompts and requesting to speak to someone at exactly 7:30, all I’ve gotten is an automated message telling me the phone lines are busy and there’s no call-back option. How are you already busy at 7:30 on the dot? I haven’t ever been able to reach someone.” 

Florida has a high number of jobless claims. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Pawning personal jewelry from my mom’

Cherese, a school bus driver in Florida, applied for unemployment on March 13. 

As she and her son wait for the checks to come in the mail, finances are extremely tight. If she doesn’t get a check soon, she said, she and her son will be evicted.

“Me and my son have been using any funds that we’ve received — $1,200 stimulus check, $1,000 payment from our mayor Lenny Curry’s stimulus program, pawning personal jewelry from my mom who died two years ago,” Cherese told Yahoo Finance. “Anything we can do just to get by since March, and it’s now mid-May. Our taxes were held up in processing, since 21 days after receiving the IRS acceptance email.” 

She was finally able to get through to the DEO two months after filing for unemployment, she said, after waiting on hold for a total of five hours.

“The representative told me the reason I had been disqualified was due to a previous claim from 2018, where I wasn’t making enough to get unemployment,” Cherese said. “This was the cause of the whole [issue] of the benefits getting to me.”

There are over 5 million coronavirus cases worldwide. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

The rep also told her he was putting her claim into a queue to be fixed by the appeals department and that when she claimed the next day, it would escalate the issue and begin payout. 

Her son, meanwhile, received orders to return back to work but still hadn’t gotten any of his unemployment checks while he was furloughed. 

“We don’t know if he’ll get the back benefits from March up to when he went back to work, or if my benefits will ever be paid,” Cherese said. “In Florida, we’re suffering.”

Adriana is a reporter and editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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