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Out of Work? How to Navigate Unemployment Benefits in the Coronavirus Crisis

By Allison Dikanovic, Lauren Costantino, Danny Laplaza
The City

Economic upheaval from the coronavirus outbreak caused 20 million Americans to lose their jobs in April, leading to a national unemployment rate of 14.7%.

Before the pandemic, the New York State Department of Labor typically got about 50,000 calls a week. Now, the agency sometimes fields 8 million calls in a week, according to spokesperson Deanna Cohen.

“This volume is something that we’ve never experienced before, and it’s frustrating. It’s horrible,” said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Previously, applicants had to call the department to complete a claim — leading to chaos. But on April 10, the state changed its system so representatives would call people directly if there were complications.

Yet THE CITY has heard from many New Yorkers who continue to face unemployment challenges, including some still waiting for benefits, others waiting for backpay and a few who are beginning to return to work for limited hours.

With an eye on the changes, we’ve updated our FAQ first published in April to help you navigate unemployment during the coronavirus crisis:

How have unemployment benefits expanded since the coronavirus crisis?

If you lost your job or were furloughed for reasons related to the pandemic, you’re now eligible to collect weekly unemployment payments. Federal law now allows you to receive benefits if:

  • Your place of employment is temporarily closed due to the outbreak.
  • You are quanatining with the expectation of returning to work.
  • You left your job due to the risk of exposure or infection.
  • You had to stop working to take care of a family member with coronavirus.

If you are still employed, but have lost wages due to the coronavirus, you do not need to — and should not — quit your job to receive coronavirus-related benefits.

If I’ve lost my job, what do I get from the federal stimulus package?

Whether you’re newly unemployed or have been for some time, the recently signed CARES Act will provide you with an additional $600 per week, on top of regular weekly payments, until July 31. You’ll be able to receive payments for 13 weeks longer than what is usually covered (39, instead of the usual 26 weeks for New York).

On April 8, Cuomo announced that New York will begin distributing those funds immediately.

“The federal government says they will reimburse us for it but people need the money now in their pocket,” he said.

You can begin receiving these $600 payments after getting through the system to file your claim for unemployment benefits.

Under CARES, the federal government will also provide a one-time payment of $1,200 to individuals who earned less than $75,000 in 2019, plus $500 for each child under 17. Folks with higher income will receive less, and those who made $99,000 or more will receive nothing. Visit the IRS website for more information.

What if I’m a gig worker or a freelancer?

Workers who are usually excluded from collecting unemployment insurance — including the self-employed and independent contractors — are now eligible to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) under the CARES Act

Here’s a complete list of who is eligible for PUA. If you are able to continue working your job from home, or are receiving paid sick leave or other paid leave benefits, then you are likely not eligible for PUA.

What if I work part-time?

If you’ve lost work and are working less than four days a week, making $504 or less, you are eligible for unemployment benefits in New York.

But partial unemployment benefits are calculated based on the number of days you work, not the number of hours. So, even if you work only two hours each day for four days a week, the state unemployment system considers that working four days, and you would not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Nicole Salk, senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Legal Services NYC, recommends consolidating your hours.

“If you have reduced work, try to put it all on one day, because then you maximize your benefits,” she said.

For every day you work, you lose access to 25% of your maximum unemployment benefits. So if you work three days a week, you get 25% of your benefits. If you work two days a week, you get 50% of your benefits, and if you work one day a week, you get 75% of your benefits.

So how do I apply for unemployment?

You can start your claim application by going to the state Department of Labor website and following the step-by-step instructions here.

Most importantly, now, if there are any issues when you file online, a representative from the department is supposed to call you within 72 hours, according to DeRosa.

“They’re going to be reaching out directly to the people so that people don’t have to go through this infuriating process of calling and getting busy signals,” she said on April 9.

Due to the overwhelming number of people filing, the state recommends you file on a certain day, depending on the first letter of your last name. Monday is for those whose last name begins with A – F; Tuesday, G – N; Wednesday, O – Z; and Thursday, Friday, Saturday is for all last names.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks about the Coronavirus at about a Midtown press conference with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

If possible, try to file your claim online first, given the clogged call centers. Labor Department officials also say they have reduced by half the number of reasons someone would need to speak to a representative, with the intention of processing more claims online.

Make sure you write down the email address and password associated with the account you create, and keep it in a safe place — a simple tip that many forget, Salk noted.

If you are self-employed, but have lost income, you should follow these instructions.

You can use this calculator to estimate your weekly benefits. The current maximum benefit is $504 a week.

The nonprofit organization Make the Road New York also has a step-by-step guide for getting through the process — with screenshots.

What if I’m only eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?

On April 20, the state Department of Labor streamlined its application so that New Yorkers who are only eligible for PUA can apply without having to first be denied traditional unemployment insurance. The updated application will ask you a series of questions that will determine what benefits you are eligible for.

But many readers have said they applied to the older application over a month ago and were still waiting for their benefits.

Anamaria Segura, supervising attorney for the Employment Law Project at NY Legal Assistance Group, says her advice on this varies depending on your situation.

If you submitted a claim and are being prompted to certify your benefits each week, then Segura says you should continue recertifying and wait it out. You should not reapply.

If your claim got denied and you received a message or email saying something like “you may be eligible for PUA,” then you should apply to this separate application.

What materials do I need?

Before you sit down to complete your online claims application, gather as much information as you can about your employment. Know when your last day of work was, have as much information about your employer on hand as possible — including their employer identification number, if you know it — and have a pay stub nearby. If you want to do direct deposit, you’ll need your bank routing number and account number.

Make sure you have as many of the following materials as possible:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your driver license or Motor Vehicle ID card number (if you have either)
  • Your complete mailing address and ZIP code
  • Your phone number
  • Your Alien Registration card number (if you are not a U.S. Citizen, and have a card)
  • Names and addresses of all your employers for the last 18 months, including those in other states
  • Employer Registration number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer (FEIN is on your W-2 tax forms)
  • Your copies of forms SF8 and SF50, if you were a federal employee
  • Your most recent separation form (DD 214), for military service

And if you’re unable to print web pages, have a pen and paper handy, too.

What if my driver’s license has expired or I don’t have one?

Don’t worry.

“You do not have to have a driver’s license, and you do not have to have an ID,” Salk said. “You should be able to apply without it.”

Anything I should keep in mind while applying?

Some terms or questions in the claim form may be confusing. One of those terms is “lack of work.”

Any kind of layoff, furlough or even a decrease in the number of opportunities for someone like an Uber driver, all count as a lack of work.

If it’s true for you, “lack of work” is the best and most clear cut option to help you get your benefits in a streamlined way, Salk noted.

Other terms that Salk said confuse people are “availability and capability,” especially in a time like this, when someone who is stuck at home may not feel able to work.

“You have to be available to work and capable to work to get unemployment [benefits],” she said. “You may have kids at home, but you can technically still do work at home, so if that’s accurate for you, you should choose that you are ‘available and capable’ of working.”

If you are technically able to do some kind of work from home, you need to select that you are available and capable of working. Otherwise, you will not be able to complete your claim online and receive benefits.

Some people are misconstruing the “telework” question, Segura said. On the application, it asks, “Are you able to telework with pay for the same hours of your customary job?” If you say “yes” to this question, that implies that you should be getting paid to work from home, so you will be denied.

I have to complete my application over the phone. What do I need to know?

If anything went wrong or presented a complication with your online application, you may need to speak to a representative by phone. This is where many people have been running into challenges.

The state Labor Department’s Telephone Claims Center number is 888-209-8124. It is staffed Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

If you are hearing impaired and being assisted by another person, call 888-783-1370. If you use TTY/TDD, call a relay operator first at 800-662-1220, and ask the operator to call the Telephone Claims Center at 888-783-1370.

The department’s website notes that TCC staff “cannot help you with issues related to your NY.gov account, such as difficulty logging in, changing your personal information or resetting your password.” For help with your NY.gov account, call 800-833-3000.

Junior's Restaurant and Bakery in Downtown Brooklyn was closed during the coronavirus outbreak, April 1, 2020.

Salk said that if your employer doesn’t report employee wages to the state “on the books” or in the traditional way, you’ll need to talk to a representative in order to file.

People who don’t speak English or Spanish also need to file their claim over the phone, since the online application is only in English or Spanish.

What if my claim is partially filed, but I can’t get through the phone lines to complete it?

Anyone who already filed a partial claim does not need to refile and no longer needs to keep calling to finish their application. If this is your situation, a representative should call you within 72 hours, according to De Rosa.

What if I miss my callback?

According to department officials, a representative will call you back again.

How do I know if the call is real or fraudulent?

Keep in mind that most of the staff are working from home, so their calls may show up as a “PRIVATE CALLER” even though it’s a rep for the Department of Labor.

To verify their identity, representatives calling from the Department of Labor will tell you the date you filed your application and the type of claim you filed, “which is information only our representatives would have access to,” said Cohen of the DOL.

For more guidance, THE CITY reported on how to identify and report scams here.

I’ve completed my claim, when will I get my check?

Unemployment claims can take two to three weeks to process from the date you applied, officials say, though hundreds of New Yorkers have told us they’re waiting longer than this for their benefits.

The fastest way for New Yorkers to receive their benefits is by choosing direct deposit, said Cohen. The question about how you want to receive your funds is at the beginning of application.

If you signed up to receive payments through a debit card rather than direct deposit, you should receive your card in about three weeks. If there are any issues with your claim, it may take longer.

If you received benefits on a prior claim by using a debit card and you no longer have the card, or if your card has expired, you have to call KeyBank at 1-866-295-2955 to get a new card, according to the DOL website.

What if I’ve been unemployed for several weeks now, but just got through the system today?

You will receive back pay from the day that you first lost your job if you qualify for either unemployment insurance or pandemic unemployment assistance.

On May 11, the NYS Department of Labor began notifying claimants via email about back weeks they are missing certifications. You may receive an email from the DOL asking you to use Docusign, a digital signature service, that will allow you to recertify back weeks that you might have missed.

So do I just get the extra $600 a week from the stimulus? I don’t have to do anything extra?

Yes, you just get it. The additional $600 per week will be automatically added to all unemployment benefits, whether you qualify for regular unemployment insurance or the newly expanded pandemic unemployment assistance.

If you’re in the system to receive unemployment benefits of any kind, you will receive the extra $600 from the CARE Act each week until July 31. This also means that if you are working part time and receiving partial benefits, you’ll still get the extra $600. But you can’t get this extra cash until you’re able to successfully file your claim with the state.

What if I made a mistake on my application?

If you have made a crucial mistake on your application that would otherwise disqualify you from receiving benefits, you can contact the Claimant Advocate Office here — though Segura warns the office is overloaded with calls each day.

Segura said people can also in touch with their elected officials or a legal service provider to help reach someone from the labor department.

Additionally, there are many legal agencies staffed with attorneys who are willing to help you figure out any employment related issues. Here are a few:

Once I get the benefits, is there anything else I need to do?

Yes. You will need to certify your benefits every single week, or you will lose them. This means that you need to log into your account and verify that you are still eligible for the benefits each week. You can do so here, or by calling 1-888-581-5812 (for UI) or 1-833-324-0366 (for PUA).

If possible, you should recertify online, because it’s easier to get through than the phone lines, Segura said. Also, it will be the same set of questions every week so you should familiarize yourself with them.

The updated Department of Labor website has pretty good instructions on how and when you need to recertify.

What if I have an outstanding overpayment from previously collecting unemployment?

On May 13 the NYS Department of Labor announced that “forfeiture day” penalties will be suspended for the duration of the pandemic emergency. That’s good news for anyone who was told they were going to have to wait until their forfeiture days were over to start receiving benefits.

Forfeiture day penalties are days in the future that someone cannot receive unemployment insurance benefits, and they are given to applicants who willfully make a false statement to get benefits. The Department of Labor calls this “overpayment” or when people receive benefits they were not entitled to.

If you disagree with your overpayment determination or the forfeit day penalties, you have a right to request a hearing by visiting the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board website.

What if my unemployment payments have been “exhausted” do I need to file a new claim?

If your benefit year has not expired but you have exhausted your 26 weeks of benefits, you should have received a letter from the NYS Department of Labor within the last week or so advising you to begin certifying to receive the additional 13 weeks of payments.

I’ve been on unemployment, but now my employer is offering me part-time hours. Should I take them?

It depends. If you take on some part-time work, you will need to account for those days that you worked otherwise you might be charged with overpayment or denied benefits.

You will lose part of your weekly benefits depending on how many days (not hours) you’re working. But you should still be receiving the extra $600 per week.

Segura said if you’re being offered work that’s comparable to your previous hours and pay rate, you should not refuse. If you do, you would be at risk of being deemed ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

But, she noted, if the hours, wages, or conditions offered are “substantially less favorable to you,” then you can make the argument that you had good cause to turn down the offer.

“I would say call a legal services provider to help you figure out your options,” Segura said. “What might happen is that you’ll be denied unemployment and you can fight it. You might not get benefits for awhile while you’re fighting your eligibility.”

What if I don’t feel safe going back to work? Will I continue receiving unemployment benefits?

Not necessarily. General concern about exposure to COVID is not really enough to refuse a job and continue collecting unemployment benefits. But, according to the City Commission on Human Rights, if you have the virus, have been exposed to someone who has the virus or are recovering from the virus, you should be able to get accommodations — like working a position with less exposure or different hours — from your employer. This also applies to workers with underlying health conditions and workers who are pregnant.

Farrell Brody, a workers’ rights attorney at the nonprofit TakeRoot Justice, said ideally it should be pretty simple to ask your employer for accommodations under these new coronavirus-related guidelines.

“You just say, ‘I have an underlying condition, and I need this kind of accommodation,’” Brody said.

Segura adds that your employer is required by law to have a dialogue with you about what these accommodations may look like. She said it’s also helpful to have a doctor’s note explaining why you’re at high-risk.

But if your employer refuses to budge, you may need to contact a lawyer. You can also file a complaint against your employer with the city for workplace discrimination, according to the Commission on Human Rights. Another option is to report your employer to the state Department of Labor.

What do I do while I’m waiting for my unemployment benefits?

There is relief assistance for individuals and organizations at the city, state and federal level in the form of extended deadlines, moratoriums and assistance.

New York City has compiled a list of general resources for New Yorkers who are unemployed due to COVID-19 or need some help with food, mental health access and more.

Food relief:

All New Yorkers are entitled to three free meals a day at more than 400 locations across the city. To find a location, visit the city’s free meal program website or text “NYC FOOD” to 877-877.

Check out THE CITY’s food resource guide for more information on accessing food programs, what to do if you’re homebound and need food, or if you want to help those who need/supply food.

Student loan relief:

The CARES Act includes major student loan relief, including no federal student loan payments, no interest on federal student loan payments, and the suspension of student loan debt collection. The temporary student loan relief will be active until Sept. 30, 2020. The CARES Act does not include private student loans, nor does it provide any student loan forgiveness.

Mutual aid groups:

Many people have turned to their fellow New Yorkers for help. “Mutual aid” groups are simply self-organized groups of people who offer services where they can in exchange for something they may need themselves — like food or other supplies. Mutual aid NYC is a network of local groups that helps direct people to the services by providing a map of neighborhood resources and a list of all mutual aid groups across the city.

This Facebook Group dedicated to navigating unemployment in the city has Q&A sessions and a community of folks available to help answer unemployment questions.

And a group of freelance artists has published an aggregated list of resources, opportunities, and financial relief options for artists of all disciplines.

Immediate hiring opportunities:

Jobs in several key industries are being posted to the NY Hire Now website. You can filter by city, title and company to find openings suited for you.

Originally published in The City on June 10, 2020.

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In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we are still working hard and our intake lines are open, but please note that our physical office is closed.

During these unprecedented times, we’ve launched a free NY COVID-19 Legal Resources Hotline and compiled the latest legal and financial counseling updates.