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State Unemployment Systems Crumple Under Unprecedented Demand


On the show today, we're going to be looking at some of the things we've lost in this pandemic and what may come next. We'll begin with this. There are 10 million people newly unemployed and seeking benefits in America over just the past two weeks - 10 million. This is where we'd normally characterize that somehow - record-breaking, historic, unprecedented. What it is is 10 million cases of personal devastation playing out across the country and especially in the 41 states where people have been urged to stay home.

At the moment, bureaucracy is compounding the hardship as overloaded state unemployment systems fail under all the demand. One example - Ohio. Joe Bretts (ph) lives outside Hamilton, Ohio, and worked at a Chinese restaurant. When the restaurant closed just over two weeks ago, Joe tried to apply for unemployment benefits from the Ohio state government. But there was a problem right at the outset.

JOE BRETZ: Social Security number's nine digits. When you go to register on the site, they ask you for your Social Security number for when you're making an account for the first time. The field to enter that, on the day I tried to get in, was only eight numbers, so I couldn't even do the first thing they needed me to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joe says they eventually fixed that problem, but it was only the start.

BRETZ: It's not really equipped for the number of people that were trying to use it at the same time, I guess, 'cause the website kept shutting down on me, saying it needed more server space or less people on it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted said, quote, "There's no hospital system in the world that's designed to handle what we're dealing with now" and that "our unemployment compensation system is the same way." The state has added hundreds of workers to handle the flood of claims. So has New York, which along with Colorado, Kentucky and Michigan, is trying to throttle demand by asking applicants to file on different days based on the first letter of their last name.

Back in Ohio, Joe Bretts continued with the application after the eight-digit Social Security number issue was resolved. But as we heard, the website failed several times. And then Joe missed the PIN number the site gave them. So when Joe tried to reset the PIN...

BRETZ: Rather than patching me through to call somebody or asking for email or anything, it just automatically says, we changed your PIN; we're sending you it in the mail. It just means more days I have to wait before I can even begin to file for the unemployment process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joe Bretts is just 23 and was planning to move to a new city for a job, but being laid off and hoping to collect unemployment has put that plan on hold.

BRETZ: Even with this check coming in, it's, you know, barely more - it's actually a bit less than what I'd be making at my regular job. I can't go out and get another job 'cause I have people in my house with compromised health situations. So I can't go out there and work and risk bringing something back home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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