New York, NY – One week —- that is how long it took “Roger,” a Brazilian immigrant to receive unemployment compensation once he requested the help of the Legal Aid Society. He had spent 10 unsuccessful weeks prior, trying on his own to communicate with the state Department of Labor
Before the pandemic, Roger, who requested anonymity, worked as a bartender and a personal trainer. But by March, he had been furloughed from both jobs. He has no clue when, or if, he will ever go back to work.
“The gym that I work at is a chain, so I’m not expecting it to close, but I don’t know when I’m going back to work at the bar,” Roger said.
Roger earned approximately $1,800 a month from each job and used to send money to his family. His mother can’t work because of arthritis. Roger’s dad stopped working to take care of her. Roger also helps support his sister. He used to spend $1,900 month on a Fort Greene apartment.
In 2017, U.S. immigrants sent an estimated $148 billion to relatives, according to research by Forbes. Worldwide, immigrants sent $648 billion to their loved ones to both developed and developing countries, competing with international aid.
“For me, it was hard as an immigrant because New York was really affected by this [pandemic] and I was concerned for my health and my family’s health, especially since I need my job to help them financially,” Roger said. “Part of what I make goes directly to help them.”
Roger applied for unemployment insurance on March 22, and was approved, but no payments were issued. He diligently called the Dept. of Labor each week, but was not able to get through to a representative. It wasn’t until he spoke to a lawyer on May 27, and sent his information to a claimant advocate office that he made any headway. On June 2, his lawyer followed-up on his claim and the personal trainer received his funds the next day.
“Fortunately, I had some savings, but I knew that I was entitled to unemployment,” said Roger. “I have a husband who is working from home and supporting me and my family over there, but it’s a situation that we have to be cautious with the expenses that we have.”
Roger is certain that if he wasn’t married to a lawyer, he wouldn’t have gotten the advice to contact Legal Aid.
Now that Roger’s husband is the sole breadwinner, both have been forced to adjust their lifestyle. They have to budget every expense, do their own laundry from home, cut out buying takeout or going to restaurants and get more grocery than usual to cook meals at home.
“How would I have paid my bills,” said Roger about the wait. “I don’t mind doing those things, but before I didn’t have the time to do it because I was working. I’m just hoping it’s enough to pay bills and to survive doing day-to-day things.”
When Roger finally got a response from the Dept. of Labor through his lawyer, he learned that the insurance was held up because they questioned his right to work as an immigrant and his right to benefits, despite the fact that he has a social security card, had a green card and has been paying taxes in the U.S. for several years.
“For me, this was shocking because I didn’t realize the [government] systems didn’t communicate with each other,” said Roger. “I didn’t know that the immigration department didn’t communicate with the labor department, because they would have had all this information about me. If they communicated with each other they would know that.”
Roger was surprised that the U.S., being a first world country, doesn’t have a more streamlined government system that stores information like immigrant status or work status for all divisions, departments and government agencies to utilize, especially for emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have an obligation to pay taxes, but they are questioning my right to work benefits,” said Roger. “I can’t imagine what people who don’t know about this who don’t have Legal Aid are going through.”
Julia Rosner, an unemployment legal expert, agrees that the Dept. of Labor is behind the times.
“New York State neeeded to be modernized more than a decade ago,” said Rosner. “New York State and the Dept. of Labor have computer systems that don’t talk with each other.”
The government and the State of New York knew there was a pandemic and did nothing about it, so they have no excuse for not being better prepared for what was to come, Rosner adds.
“There are also bureaucratic delays,” said Rosner. “If someone submitted an application online, before the state created a new system with Google after the pandemic in April, no one knows what happened to those older applications.”
For every update to the application system, there is no merged system to check all of the information for applicants at the same time, according to Rosner.
“It’s almost like they are sitting in a box,” said Rosner. “They keep creating these new applications, but what is happening to the previous ones?”
The Labor Department has even more technical problems.
“New York State had the chance to update the technology at the Dept. of Labor, but didn’t and the technology there is lacking,” said Rosner. “We now have millions of people out of work at the same time.”
Rosner also notes that the Dept. of Labor has staffed up because of the pandemic, and while there are no current numbers that say they were understaffed before, she is not sure if the new employees are fully adept at using the current computer system, which could be very confusing.
The different applications are also a source of confusion for full-time workers, contract workers and freelance workers that are employees, according to the legal expert.
“For example, there are workers who are not independent contractors, but they are freelance employees, like Uber drivers and they have to produce their own W2s and tax documents,” said Rossner. “So, you can imagine in a pandemic that is not easy. There was a restaurant that got only one benefit check. When I did advocacy around that, it was discovered that they had asked for work authorization, which [he] sent immediately. So it’s just sitting there [in the old application system].”
People that did an application before the new Google application system seem to be stuck in a quagmire, because the website has their information and won’t let them make a new application, but they might need to make a new application in order for their requested documents to be seen in the new system.
“There are 6,000 claimants that filed an application around March that had a hearing for May 28,” said Rosner. “Someone has to manually be in the office to create the hearing files, download all these different systems to create a written file, then the written file has to go to an administrative judge, to the employer and the employee to be mailed out.”
If New York State had a modern 21st Century electronic system during this pandemic where people need to social distance, the applications could have been handled online saving everyone time, according to Rosner.
“New York State is also one of the few states, if not the only state, where you are punished for working part-time,” said Rosner. “If you work an hour or two hours, you lose 25-percent of your benefits, if you work two days you lose 50-percent of your benefits, if you work three days you lose 75-percent and if you work for four days you lose 100-percent of your benefits or if you make more than $504 you lose all of your benefits.”
Other states don’t penalize employees for working part-time and allow them their weekly benefit rate, which means more revenue going back to their state, according to Rosner. So far part-time employees, they are better off not working at all as oppose to working part-time and receiving a reasonable subsidy.
“Governor [Andrew] Cuomo tried to get legislation to change that, and if that had happened it would be great reform, but there is a contingent pushing for it not to happen. New York State has a very powerful business council lobby!,” said Rosner.