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Unemployment Claims Surge Nationwide, Testing State Systems

States have never seen the volume of unemployment insurance claims that they have received in recent days. Although some online systems are doing better than others, states urge citizens to utilize virtual services.

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Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen
With millions of Americans out of work due to the novel coronavirus crisis, states are generally advising citizens to, if possible, apply for unemployment insurance online.

According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Labor, states received 3,000,000 more UI claims during the week of March 21 than they did the week of March 14. In New Mexico, a state of roughly 2 million people, total claims reached 17,187 on March 21, an increase of about 16,000 claims from the previous week. 

“We are experiencing a high volume of phone calls,” said Bill McCamley, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. “That is one of the reasons we are strongly encouraging folks who have that ability to apply online.”

McCamley said New Mexico’s decision to modernize its unemployment system within the last decade has helped the state absorb the dramatic increase in online claims, which make up 93 percent of the new filings. McCamley cited citizens forgetting their passwords as the state’s largest technical issue at the moment. 

In Tennessee, home to more than 6 million residents, claims jumped to approximately 39,000 at the end of last week, an increase of about 36,000. Jeff McCord, commissioner of the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development, told Government Technology in an email today that the state hasn’t experienced “any major technical difficulties with its unemployment computer system during this surge of claims.” He added that his department expanded the capabilities of the system to help manage the unprecedented hike in claims. 

Rhode Island reported an upswing in claims that was similar to the case in Tennessee. Notwithstanding than an increase of 34,000 filings is massive for such a small state, Rhode Island’s benefits system has managed to handle the increased load with relative success.

“While the increase in claim volume has caused occasional slowdowns or other technical difficulties that may temporarily affect user experience, we have not had the kind of full system crash reported in other states,” Angelika Pellegrino, chief public affairs officer for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, said in an email today. 

But the story has been a bit different for larger states that are processing far more benefits claims.

According to KRPC 2, one citizen reported failure to get through to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), having “been on the phone and on the [agency’s] website four to five hours a day for three days.” Texas watched its number of UI claims blow up from 16,176 to 155,657 last week. 

“We recognize the inconvenience this [is] causing for our customers and are working quickly with our agency partner, the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) to resolve issues and accommodate the increased number of users on TWC’s website,” according to a TWC statement received by KRPC 2. “Working with DIR we have increased the memory to accommodate the number of users on the server.”

Michigan saw its incoming claims surge to about 129,000, a spike of nearly 124,000. A press release indicates that Michigan’s unemployment website may operate a “little slower,” with some pages taking “several minutes” to load, and that “phone queues are full.” 

The state noted that the fastest way to UI benefits is through the website, particularly during off-peak hours — between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. Erica Quealy, communications manager for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, said in an email yesterday that “The system is holding strong. We’ve added server capacity and continue to monitor the system to ensure it is performing to serve customers.”

In an email to Government Technology yesterday, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) said so far this week it has hit a total of more than 103,000 claims, about 30,000 more than it had at the end of last week, when the number of filings skyrocketed from about 6,500 to just over 74,000. 

Like other states, Florida suggests citizens should apply online, as callers are experiencing “above average wait times,” said Tiffany Vause, DEO communications and external affairs director. DEO is working with its current vendor as well as external interface partners to increase system capacity. 

“We haven’t had a crash, but users are experiencing a lot of slowness,” Vause said. 

Vause mentioned the state is having difficulty verifying Social Security numbers in real time, so it is working with a vendor on an hourly basis to fix this problem.

“I know multiple states are having that issue,” Vause said. 

The online UI system of Washington state, which gained almost 120,000 claims last week, has had technical difficulties in certain cases, said Bretta Beveridge, communications manager for the Washington Employment Security Department, in an email today.

First-time applicants in Washington have experienced “front end issues” while creating their Secure Access Washington accounts as part of the state’s single sign-on system. Other applicants may see issues if they happen to submit claims before IT staff are able to update rules, such as eligibility requirements, in the system. 

Washington is continually updating its technology and putting out new UI guides as the situation evolves. Even with the problems people are having online, the phone option remains slower, with some calls being dropped altogether, though the state has added a toll-free help line and a way for residents to schedule call-back times instead of holding.  

“The fastest way to apply is still online,” Beveridge said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.