Every morning since March 20, when I lost my job as an assistant at a university, I’ve spent hours at home, bobbing my head up and down to the soundtrack of Lil Uzi Vert’s latest album and the shrill repetition of a busy dial tone provided by the NYS Unemployment Insurance Telephone Claims Center.
Like many other New Yorkers, I’ve been ordered to stay at home and forced to scramble for new sources of income.
With no shortage of time on my hands, I’ve devoted myself to a new hustle: getting through to an actual human at the NYS Unemployment Insurance Telephone Claims Center. But, unlike some of my previous employers, the Claims Center does not seem to care if I make an appearance.
My bid to secure unemployment has thrown me into a desperate new work schedule:
I wake up around 7:30 a.m. I find this quite impressive, seeing as I never woke up this early back when I had a job. The phone lines open at eight. So I spend half an hour preparing for my day. I do some stretches, make some coffee, and swallow an obscenely large Vitamin C tablet. Some days it gets caught in my throat; some days it makes it down.
I put on mascara and fluff some dry shampoo into my hair. I figure why not look pretty while my life falls apart?
Soon, the clock strikes eight. Trading hour for the unemployed begins.
Fortunately, I don’t need to dial the number. It’s already in my phone’s call history from when I called 276 times yesterday, and 372 the day before, and 402 the day before that.
I make my first call.
I don’t get through. I call every minute until around 9:30. Nothing. Just the stubborn screech of the busy dial tone.
I join a Facebook group called “HELP US — NYS UNEMPLOYMENT ISSUES” to feel less alone. Instead, I feel more alone and dejected. It turns out that I am calling at a fraction of the rate as the others, that I am the slacker of the bunch.
Someone in the group says they’ve configured computer software to automatically redial the number and input the extensions. Another says they’re calling on three phones. One woman said she went out to buy a non-portable phone, ostensibly because it’s more comfortable to hold for eight hours a day. Someone suggests that we download an app called Auto Redial, and program our phones to dial themselves. I cannot find it in the app store.
It’s just me, my medieval iPhone 6, and my inability to devise a sophisticated calling apparatus. I return to making manual calls, feeling further demoralized and pathetic.
Someone is scolding others in the Facebook group for having a negative attitude. It’s not even noon, and I am at 303 calls, and have not yet reached even the semblance of a human.
At around 12:38 p.m., I finally hear a voice.
We’re sorry, the recording says. We are experiencing an extremely high volume of calls at this time. The call drops.
I look up Cuomo’s office number. I dial it and get connected to an automated system. The machine asks me if I am calling regarding the novel coronavirus. I am confused by their pronunciation of “novel coronavirus.” Is that how you pronounce novel? (Like “Nobel”?)
I am reminded of the photos where it looks like he has a nipple ring.
The call drops.
I ditch the phone and grab my computer to file a new claim, hoping to have better luck online.
The state’s labor department site is down; I refresh several times. It goes back up, but the only forms available for filing are an “Asbestos Certificate Application” and a “Child Performer 15-Day Permit Application.” The unemployment form appears to have vanished.
I wonder if I should file them both out of spite.
I call 50 more times and — at last — am connected to the elusive automated system, which only emerges once every 200 or so calls.
They list their language options. I click “4” for Russian, hoping that I am the genius who has discovered a loophole in the system to get me through. But it appears they have won this round, too.
It directs me to a machine. A voice tells me in English, “Our system is experiencing technical difficulties.” The call drops.
Someone in the group believes we have entered purgatory.
Determined, I call again. Forty more times. Sixty more times. I get the dial tone each time. I call again, and again.
Finally, I get to face the machine once more.
Welcome to the New York State Department of Labor Unemployment Insurance Telephone Claims Center, the recording announces. His tone is sprightly, but reeking of false promise.
I listen to the unbearably long prompt that I’m not allowed to skip, and mock the unsympathetic voice while I wait. Eventually, I make it to the Main Menu. I press “5” to speak to a representative and enter my Social Security Number into the phone at record speed. Boom. They tell me they are transferring me to a claims specialist.
I take a deep breath. Will it be heaven or hell this time?
I’ve reached this point around 80 times over the past two weeks, and still I think this one could be different. Maybe this time, they’ll open the gates for me.
They don’t. The information you have provided has been recorded. However, you need to speak with a claims specialist to process your claim. All of our agents are currently busy helping other customers.
So hell, it is.
I wonder if they have ever considered implementing a hold system, like most functional call centers do. Or if they have considered employing all the unemployed people at the call center.
I remember that food exists and take a bite of some leftover pasta I find in my fridge.
It’s almost 4 p.m. and I don’t have the will to call anymore. I check the Facebook group for encouragement.
Someone in the group posts that they have gotten through after three weeks of calling and calling over 1,000 times a day. The representative they spoke to told them the phone system was similar to playing a slot machine.
Someone suggests buying a Powerball ticket instead.
At 5 p.m., I get a text from my friend who lives in Berlin. He sends me a screenshot of a 5,000 euro deposit he just received from the German government. He told me he applied for unemployment relief this morning.
I regret ever calling Germans stiff.
I call again. Busy. Busy. Busy. Busy.
Someone is proposing a revolution on the Facebook page. He is demanding we rise up against Albany, frustrated that we pay taxes for this broken government.
It’s 7 p.m. I call 46 more times. I don’t get through.
The lines close for the day, though it seems they were never really open anyway.
Still, after 606 calls throughout the day, I am relieved that I don’t have to call anymore. For the next few hours, I don’t have to think about how every minute I don’t make a call is a wasted spin at the government’s rigged slot machine.
Someone posts in the group that they are now open on Saturdays and Sundays to keep the fun going all weekend long!
I make a Negroni to unwind for the evening and await a new day of abuse by the NYS Unemployment Telephone Claim Center.