When the pandemic hit and millions of people lost their jobs, my beat as a reporter at Vice swiftly changed to covering unemployment. I spoke to workers—teachers, ride-share drivers, servers—who were dialing unemployment offices hundreds of times a day, desperate for any type of relief. Our team called offices in all 50 states and found only two people actually picked up, illustrating how impossible it was to get help from a real person. I spoke to labor lawyers and policy experts who themselves were struggling to parse the federal government’s complicated new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance guidelines.
“Good thing we’re doing all this reporting on unemployment insurance so we will know what to do when we lose our jobs,” I joked to my editor in April. By May, I was laid off, along with most of the people on my desk, along with some 21 million others.
But at least I had a good grasp on the system. My claim seemed clear-cut: I was laid off from a full-time W-2 job, with regular pay stubs, because of the Covid-19 recession. I was also coming from a union job, which meant that I had lawyers and union staff to help me with the application process. I was out of work, but I was lucky. But what followed—a summer spent plumbing the cursed depths of unemployment rules—quickly tested that premise.
I applied through the Labor Department’s online portal, entering my income and dutifully certifying my claim every Sunday. Weeks went by, and most of my former co-workers got their applications approved. I heard nothing. On June 4, as some 18 million people remained unemployed, I messaged the New York Department of Labor’s Twitter account because one lawyer from an unemployment webinar I helped organize a few weeks after I was laid off had advised that it was the fastest way to get through.
They were right, which still feels insane. After I sent the private message, someone from the department took my name and said I would receive a call. Two weeks later, I reached back out to say I hadn’t received a call. They took my name again. As I waited, I scoured a Facebook group, forebodingly named “HELP US—NYS Unemployment Issues,” that I had found months back in the course of my reporting. People posted that the real trick to actually getting in touch with someone was to get routed through the governor’s office. Every time I learned something new, I would text my friends, who were sick of me, to “update” them on “my new life.”
It was now mid-July, and 16 million people were still jobless. I called the governor’s office and, after an hour of being put on hold, reached a real person who told me that they would put me on the callback list for unemployment. The list right now was short, they reassured me, and I should expect to get a call the next day. I felt an unfamiliar flash of hope. I hung up the phone and whispered into the empty silence of my apartment, I love you.
The next day came and went. No one called. The day after that, I missed the call because I had stepped away from my phone for 10 minutes. Ten minutes! They left a voicemail saying they would try to call again; later that week I missed another call. Feeling truly wretched at my apparent failure to remain glued to my phone 24 hours a day, I called the governor’s office again. This time, perhaps sensing that I was on the edge of my sanity or because of random good luck, they put me directly through.
The first person I spoke to at the Department of Labor couldn’t get their computer to work so I was put back on hold and—an hour later—spoke to another representative. He told me that my unemployment claim had been rejected, which was news to me, and that he would put in an application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, the expanded federal unemployment benefit that included the self-employed. The conversation that followed felt mind-bendingly ridiculous because it was.
He asked me the application questions over the phone: “Did your place of employment close as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic?” I told him I had been laid off, but that the Vice offices were still open—did that count? He asked where I worked now. I said that as a freelancer, any work I was able to do was from my desk at home. He repeated the question. I replied, “So you’re asking did my home close as a direct result of Covid-19?” He repeated the question. I said no. I hung up the phone and sat quietly at the desk in my office, which had stayed open during the pandemic because it is also my bedroom.
After months of a slow, bureaucratic drag, what came next happened quickly: My rejection from PUA arrived in the mail just days later. It was now August. I filed for an appeal, while also reaching out to a former colleague who worked in unemployment policy and multiple unemployment lawyer help lines. After many calls and emails, I was told that, actually, I should be eligible for regular unemployment; the problem was a mess with the number of specific calendar quarters I had worked in. (I would go into the details of the “alternate base period,” but I’ll spare you the suffering.) Every conversation with an expert gave me a flood of relief that something might change; every grain of solid information felt like an undeserved treasure. They told me to reapply, so I did.
As I waited, the Labor Department called—not because I had reapplied, but to return my Twitter message from June. After I explained my situation again, I was told that, actually, I should be eligible for PUA. “Why did you think your place of employment didn’t close as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic?” the representative asked me. I explained that the Vice (and my home) office didn’t close. “See, this is the problem—people are really overinterpreting these questions,” he said. OK, buddy, I thought, as I recalled my conversation with the last representative. By the end of August, almost four months later, I finally got my unemployment. It took 98 days.
In many ways, I am the perfect person to navigate the system, short of an actual unemployment lawyer. I reported on the rollout of the new laws and how people were navigating the backlogs. I had access to policy experts and lawyers. I don’t have kids or other caretaking responsibilities. I had the time and energy to keep pursuing my claim, despite being told multiple times that I wasn’t eligible. I had enough savings and cheap enough rent to wait things out. And the really horrible part was—as arbitrary and confusing as it all felt, as pointless as my expertise seemed to be in the face of understaffed offices and a needlessly complex system—it had all helped. I was this weird unemployment mutant. It was likely the only reason I got a check in the end.
But no one, fresh out of a job or really ever, should know that much about how to be out of a job. Which is why the system, which also differs in every state, is only more punitive for people who might have trouble applying for any number of reasons—a lack of internet, English isn’t their first language, or simply not having enough time to parse every maddening bureaucratic obstacle—out of their control. It’s part of the reason why so many unemployed people don’t actually receive unemployment benefits—according to a Pew survey, for a week in March, only 29 percent of unemployed Americans did.
In fact, it’s the point: As lawmakers gripe about fraud and laziness, they purposefully put people through the wringer just to get what they’re owed. The starved, complex unemployment system is designed to deny people benefits; you don’t build a maze unless you want to keep people chasing dead ends. I mean, I should know.