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Rochester residents navigate an overwhelmed system to claim unemployment benefits

When Allison Roberts lost her job at the Jewish Community Center on March 16, she tried applying for unemployment benefits, but she couldn't get through by phone or online.

After weeks of this, the human resources representative from the JCC started helping her with some assistance from the office of a local member of Congress

"Finally," she explained, "I got something saying, 'You're approved,' even though I never answered any questions. 'There's a debit card coming for you in three weeks.' I got the debit card in a couple of days, which I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's awesome!' "

But every time Roberts tried to activate the debit card, she heard a recorded message that said there was a delay in the funding of some accounts and to check back later.

About a week later, the call finally went through and she was able to access her unemployment payments almost two months after her first attempt to claim them.

By then, the New York state labor department was reporting a blacklog of 7,580 pending unemployment applications.

People were criticizing the state's antiquated technology.

The department says it wasn't designed to withstand the torrent of requests that poured in. Over 2.7 million unemployment claims were processed in the first three months of the pandemic, more than three times the number that were handled in all of 2019.

Since then, the labor department says it has installed a new phone system and a new chat function on its website.

People who are waiting for their applications to be approved may now get a text or an email updating the status of their claim.

But not everyone has access to reliable technology or an internet connection.

At Action for a Better Community in Rochester, Edwin Agron, employment liaison for the Bridges to Success program, helps clients file their unemployment claims by going online for them.

"They've never met me. They've never seen me in person," he said, "but they feel comfortable enough to give me their Social Security number, give me their driver's license identification, all their information. I tell them, 'I'll continue on my end, and once I get far enough that I need your responses, I'll call you right back.' "

He said sometimes, he would get to question number 45 on a questionnaire and the session would time out and he had to start the whole process over from the beginning.

"Some of these unemployment sessions can last four hours," he said.

Agron said the application process seems less arduous in recent weeks, but he said he still can't get past the automated phone system to talk to a representative for help in trouble-shooting.

A spokesperson for the labor department said those who have not yet received their benefits are now the exception, not the rule.

She said many of the outstanding claims are complex and may require special attention, but they will keep working until everyone gets their benefits.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.