Call center operators who handled millions of calls at the...

Call center operators who handled millions of calls at the beginning of the pandemic were "unsung heroes," a state official said.  Credit: NYS Department of Labor

The state is halfway through a major, four-year technology upgrade to its unemployment filing process, more than two years after mass pandemic layoffs pushed the system to its breaking point. 

The Department of Labor, along with the Office of Information Technology Services, plans over the next 24 months to begin rolling out a series of fixes and updates the agency said will reduce call volume and more efficiently connect jobless New Yorkers to benefits.

The agency, which said it "is still working on the final contracts" for the work, did not provide a total cost of the improvements.

Specific features of the new system include:

  • A contact center that will use automated bots to answer specific questions about claims.
  • An upgraded management system for submitting documents for fast processing.
  • A new intranet system to improve internal training and assist call center staff in streamlining the claims process.
  • A real-time, cloud-based software system that will replace the agency's “antiquated" software.

“The pandemic, as horrifying as it was, gave us a real insight into the future,” state labor commissioner Roberta Reardon said. “We knew we needed to be much more robust and customer friendly. We learned a lot about people’s expectations.”

State labor commissioner Roberta Reardon said a historic wave of...

State labor commissioner Roberta Reardon said a historic wave of pandemic layoffs taught her agency about New Yorkers' expectations.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

The state was early in the process of upgrading its systems when the pandemic began. But the surge of jobless claims and phone calls in the early weeks and months of the health crisis accelerated those efforts, Reardon told Newsday. 

In many instances, she said, the agency's internal software where agents would look up and confirm key information for claimants was so outdated that simple questions required navigating to 10 or more screens and could take upward of 25 minutes. 

"We want it to take 4 or 5,” she said. 

On Long Island, tens of thousands of residents filed unemployment claims each week for months following shutdowns. Many, desperate to secure jobless aid while dealing with technical issues on their accounts, flooded the state’s unemployment phone lines, calling hundreds of times a day.

Some waited months before seeing money in their accounts.  

The Labor Department received over 1.7 million calls the first week that jobless claims were impacted by pandemic layoffs, the state said in a news release.

“The real unsung heroes were the daily phone operators that handled this crunch of calls from panicked citizens,” Reardon said. “They were often being trained on new technology while they worked.”

She said the agency hopes to roll out its new, bot-automated phone system in the next few months — a technology similar to bank answering systems — with plans to implement all upgrades by late next year.

More than $105 billion in jobless aid was paid out to 5 million New Yorkers in the first two years of the pandemic.

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