Google, New York build new unemployment website to handle claims surge

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and adviser Melissa DeRosa update reporters on the state's COVID-19 outbreak. (New York State)

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that he’s simultaneously managing stresses to the state’s health care system and mitigating threats to an economy increasingly composed of unemployed residents.

In New York, as in many other states, this has largely meant ensuring that the government’s aging computer systems can withstand the barrage of applications for unemployment benefits. Cuomo said during his daily briefing that New York has been working with Google this week to launch a new website at 7 p.m. Thursday, but also warned that many of the state’s reactions are merely its best attempts to weather an unprecedented crisis.

Melissa DeRosa, a senior Cuomo aide, said the state received 350,000 new unemployment claims last week, bringing the total to 810,000 claims since March 9. More than 200,000 of those claims remain unprocessed, she said, responding to a question about widespread accounts of residents being unable to connect with the state’s overworked call centers.

The state Department of Labor reported receiving 1.7 million calls last month and 2.3 million website visits, with some residents saying they’ve called thousands of times in hopes of reaching an operator. DeRosa said the form on the new website contains fewer questions than previous applications, and rather than telling users who left out information in their applications to call the state, it will direct users to await a call from the state, which she said would arrive within 72 hours.

“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 and thereby collapsing the system,” DeRosa said, knocking on the table. “So hopefully starting today after 7 o’clock the system will be much better streamlined, but as the governor said, it’s a volume issue that we’ve never experienced.”

New York assigned an additional 300 employees to help process unemployment claims this week. There are now nearly 1,000 people working to process claims, the governor said.

“Look, the technology at the Department of Labor, the system just crashed because of the volume,” Cuomo said. “It’s one of those unanticipated consequences of a situation like this. One thousand people working on personnel for that incoming system — that was the number we used to get of applicants. Now we have 1,000 people processing applications.”

Though New York has been hit hardest by COVID-19, with more than 7,000 dead, unemployment programs everywhere have likewise been flooded by requests for financial assistance. The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that an additional 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, marking the second-largest number of new unemployment claims since the department began tracking that data in 1967.

Many states’ unemployment systems have proven ill-equipped to handle the surge in applications. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy put out a call for engineers who know COBOL, the ancient programming language that powers the state’s decades-old computer system.

In Massachussetts, which received 329,000 unemployment claims over two weeks, former state Inspector General Greg Sullivan said “the system is just not close to being made for this.”

Officials in Connecticut, which has received 300,000 claims, report a six-week backlog for processing. 

Florida received more than 500,000 unemployment benefits claims. Officials there have shared plans to install dozens of new servers as they relocate staff to handle the demand. The state also began accepting paper-based forms, which can be mailed or walked into offices, in an attempt to unburden its digital systems.

Like New York, Florida has rushed to modernize its systems. On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity launched a new unemployment benefits website, designed to work well with mobile devices and handle more users. In a press release announcing the new site, the department’s director, Ken Lawson, said his team is “working around the clock” to make the application process easier.

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