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State unemployment systems tested by surge of applicants

(AP) — Americans are seeking unemployment benefits at unprecedented levels due to the coronavirus, but many are finding more frustration than relief.

State websites and phone lines across the country have been overwhelmed with applicants — causing sites to crash, phone lines to ring busy and much-needed payments to be delayed. While many states are doing their best to respond — adding staff, updating technology and streamlining the process — it’s tough to keep up with the pace of demand.

About 10 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the two weeks ended March 27.

“There’s no hospital system in the world that’s designed to handle what we’re dealing with,” Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted told reporters. “Our unemployment compensation system’s the same way.”

Ohio handled twice as many claims in the past two weeks than it had over the past two years. The state has increased its online capacity for processing claims 20 times, added hundreds of workers, yet users might still encounter delays.

New York’s Department of Labor said its phone system recorded more than 8.2 million calls last week, compared with 50,000 in a typical week. Its online filing system received 3.4 million visits during that time, compared to the usual 350,000. The site has crashed several times in recent weeks under the burden.

To handle the influx, New York has added 20 servers, hundreds of staff and expanded its hours of operations. It’s also trying to reduce the surge– as are Colorado, Kentucky and Michigan — by asking people to file on different days based on the first letter of their last name.

“It is not working as smoothly as I would like to see it,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “It’s compounding people’s stress.”

It’s a problem playing out across the nation.

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