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OpinionEditorial

Don't forget the jobless

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/numbeos

We've seen economic devastation before.

But not like this.

A staggering 6.6 million Americans, including 369,025 New Yorkers, filed initial unemployment claims last week. That’s on top of the 3.3 million workers nationally, and more than 80,500 in New York, who filed the prior week.

More than 60,000 Long Islanders reported losing their jobs in the last two weeks. Year over year, the Island experienced a stunning 3,605% increase in unemployment claims last week.

The scope of job loss is terrifying to individuals and families, and horrific for our local economy. The impact is sudden and extreme.

More federal data on March’s entire employment picture are expected Friday morning — but since it includes several weeks before shutdowns began, it won’t fully capture the coronavirus pandemic impact.

Millions of residents now rely on government benefits to get them through what’s likely to be a long, dark period. But the extraordinary level of unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic has choked the very system designed to help those who lose their jobs, leaving phone lines jammed and websites frozen.

From March 23 to March 28, the state Department of Labor received more than 8.2 million calls, when usually that number would hover around 50,000. The website had more than 3.4 million hits in that week, compared to the usual 350,000.

So, it’s likely that thousands of state residents were unable to file for unemployment insurance during those first two weeks because the system was overloaded. The numbers are likely to continue to rise exponentially in the coming weeks.

On Long Island, where small businesses make up 90 percent of the economy, and so many are service-oriented, it’s virtually impossible to gauge how bad it’s going to get. Larger employers aren’t immune, either. Macy’s this week announced plans to furlough most of its 130,000 employees nationwide.

It’s critical that the state Department of Labor ramp up to meet the need, so that everyone who needs unemployment insurance can get it. The state has added staff and computer servers. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state is working with private technology companies to expand website capacity.

Given how this crisis will grow, that’s likely not enough. State Department of Labor officials will have to routinely reevaluate the need, and their ability to meet it. Communication with unemployed residents will be key, so everyone understands how to best navigate the system.

That’s especially vital now that federal legislation expands eligibility, the size of the payouts, and how long such benefits will last.

The state also has to take a look at ways to ease unemployment insurance practices and regulations, perhaps making it easier for unemployed individuals to check in every week after their initial claims, so they don’t get caught up in server backups, and don’t further overload the system.

This isn’t the time for business as usual. The economic pain will be severe. State officials must do whatever they can to reduce the bureaucracy, and get New Yorkers the funds they need.

— The editorial board

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