Error messages, three hour+ hold times for newly unemployed trying to file for benefits

State representative offers assistance for applicants “locked out” of unemployment website

Error messages, three hour+ hold times for newly unemployed trying to file for benefits

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s the first time many people have ever had to file for unemployment benefits. Through no fault of their own, many workers have suddenly found themselves out of a job as the coronavirus outbreak has shuttered businesses across the country. More than 3.3 million people filed initial jobless claims last week, shattering the previous record of 695,000 claims filed in the week ending October 2, 1982.

Many are eligible for unemployment benefits, but have been unable to access them. Restaurant workers have been especially hard hit. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ordered all bars and restaurants closed to everything but takeout orders on March 17. That order greatly reduced food sales for many restaurants, to the point that many restaurant owners closed indefinitely rather than continue to try to operate under these restrictions that effectively eliminated their profits.

WECT has spoken to several restaurant industry workers in the Wilmington area who have been out of work for nearly two weeks without any income. Many who have tried to file online for unemployment benefits have experienced issues.

A Wilmington bartender said he tried to file twice a day, everyday for the last four days, but could not get through on the overwhelmed system. On the fourth day, he said North Carolina’s Employment Security website crashed while he was trying to logon, and after that, he was locked out of his account. An error message directed him to call the office’s toll free number. He tried calling 17 times on Wednesday and could only get a busy signal. On Thursday, he was finally able to get through but only after waiting on hold for nearly four hours, hoping to speak to someone who could help reset his account so he could file a claim.

State officials say they typically receive 3,000 applications a week, but that number has surged to 18,000 a day since the Coronavirus prompted a state of emergency here. And 18,000 is just the number of people who could actually get through to file an application.

Other issues WECT has been made aware of from people trying to file for benefits include a restaurant manager who went through the process of applying for benefits through the state website, but was told at the end of the process she’d been approved for $0. We’re also aware of a DJ who applied online Monday, but has yet to get any kind of confirmation email saying his application had been received, or when he could expect benefits.

Other bartenders say they’ve been approved for unemployment benefits ranging from $80/week to $350/week (up to a $4,200 max), but neither of those applicants has seen any money yet. Another bar manager tells WECT that he has been tentatively approved, but the website shows an asterisk by his approval saying the Department of Employment Security needs to follow up with his employer before his benefits are finalized.

With their bank accounts quickly dwindling and no way to know when they will receive financial assistance, it’s a dire situation for tens of thousands of displaced workers across North Carolina.

We reached out to State Representative Deb Butler, who relayed that the Employment Security office is struggling to keep up with the demand. She said technicians continue to work to expand the capacity of the website. Officials suggest the applicant and the employer both should select Covid-19 from the drop down box where you select “reason for unemployment.”

Butler was able to contact the Assistant Secretary of the Commerce Department on behalf of the displaced employee who reached out to us after being locked out of his account when the website crashed. The department was able to reset his account, and and Butler said a special team has been set up to focus solely on helping people like him who have been locked out of their accounts.

Still, getting through to the team on the overwhelmed phone line can be daunting. Butler has offered to help constituents who are locked out of their accounts get through until the volume of applicants returns to a more manageable level. She says if you have also been locked out of your account, you can send her a private message on her political Facebook page and she would help you get your account reset. Butler noted she can only help people who have truly been “locked out,” and is unable to assist people who are temporarily knocked off the website due to heavy volume.

Butler was also going to suggest that the Employment Security department approve retroactive benefits to displaced workers who were unable to immediately process their unemployment application because of overwhelming demand on the system.

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