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The toll of NY's jobless-claims backlog    

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic have not received their benefits from the state Department of Labor. Credit: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are losing their jobs and barely making ends meet. They’re filing for state unemployment benefits, or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, known as PUA, from the federal government.

And then ... they wait. It’s a frustrating, distressing story.

Food must be bought. Bills must be paid. But the unemployment check doesn’t come.

Some have waited for more than a month. Some have kept their phones by their sides, waiting for a state Department of Labor employee to call. Some check the state DOL website a dozen times a day, hoping the “pending” next to their status somehow magically will change.

This is not a story unique to New York. Millions of Americans are out of work. Every state has had trouble keeping up with the swarming need. 

The nation’s gross domestic product fell by a stunning 4.8% in the first quarter of 2020, according to data released Wednesday. And that’s nothing compared to the damage to the economy that we’re likely to see for the second quarter.

This toll is much worse, though, when individuals already going through tough times can’t get the money they’re entitled to — and don’t know when it’s coming.

So far, New York has paid out at least $3.1 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 1 million people since the crisis began. But hundreds of thousands of others, many of whom are self-employed or part of the gig economy, are stuck in a backlog that isn’t easing quickly enough. Worse yet, they have no idea when the check will come.

The situation exposes longstanding weaknesses and clear shortcomings in the state’s information technology infrastructure, which just can’t handle the breadth of claims and calls. Yes, any system might be severely stressed by the extraordinary circumstances, and yes, state officials have tried to manage the situation by adding staff, launching a new website, and, just Wednesday, issuing new directives to employers to make key information needed to file claims more readily available to employees. But massive problems remain. Among them: the new front-facing website doesn’t alleviate limitations in, or communicate directly with, the state’s older back-end mainframe.

Last year, the state DOL started a five-year upgrade of its IT systems, but that’s barely begun. Once this crisis is over, it must be a priority.

Last week’s data breach, where a problem with a mail sorting machine led an unknown number of people to receive other people’s benefit documents, including personal data, made matters worse. While the state is investigating, and offering free credit monitoring and expedited claims to those impacted, the breach certainly doesn’t instill confidence. 

New Yorkers need their benefits. But they also need information. The state should find a way to provide filers with more detailed, regular updates about an application’s status and how soon money will come. Wednesday, state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said the department had no algorithm for that. Find one.

Those needing help have seen “pending” long enough.

— The editorial board