State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, with five other state senators as co-sponsors, launched an online petition last week, calling on the state Department of Labor to address the backlog of unemployment claims filed since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of New York in March.
Posted to a website with the header “Fix the Unemployment Disaster Now!,” the petition is viewable at fixdoldisaster.com.
“Thousands of New Yorkers have been waiting nearly two months and have yet to see a dime, or even get a call back from the New York State Department of Labor,” the petition reads. “It’s clear the system is broken, change is needed and New Yorkers who were forced to stop working through no fault of their own need relief now.”
Typically, a state’s unemployment site might be able to handle several thousand claims over a few months, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday during his daily COVID-19 briefing held at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, but sites are now trying to handle millions of claims. Currently, 3,000 people are working the state’s unemployment phone lines and the website, just trying to keep up, he said.
After the petition was posted and Sen. Ritchie called for state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon’s resignation last week, Gov. Cuomo staffer Jack Sterne described the move as a “cheap shot” and Sen. Ritchie as a “cheap politician.”
“We’re moving faster and more aggressively in New York than any other major state, paying over $5.8 billion in benefits to 1.5 million New Yorkers in just two months — nearly three times the amount paid in all of last year,” Mr. Sterne said in a statement. “Commissioner Reardon and thousands of state employees are working 24/7 to process applications and get New Yorkers their benefits, and we won’t let cheap shots from cheap politicians distract us from that work.”
Gov. Cuomo backed Mr. Sterne’s statement Wednesday.
“Is it a cheap shot? Yes, it’s a cheap shot,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I understand that it’s easy to pander here.”
He added that the unemployment claim “tension” is about finding a balance between accelerating the process and preventing benefits from being distributed to “people who don’t meet the federal criteria.”
“I’ll tell you what the cheap shot will be from a politician,” he said. “Two months from now when this is over, they’ll find someone who got the benefits who didn’t deserve the benefits, and they’ll say ‘how did you give that person an unemployment check, they didn’t deserve the unemployment check. You gave away the taxpayers’ money unfairly.’”
In a response statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Ritchie said her office “is again being flooded this week with hundreds of calls from people who are at their breaking point due to the current situation at the New York State Department of Labor.”
“Again, I fully understand we are facing an unprecedented demand for assistance,” she said. “However, it is not OK that people who applied for unemployment nine weeks ago have still not seen a dime. ...The governor and his staff continue to boast about how well the unemployment system is performing. They tell us not to worry, because claims will be backdated and people waiting nine weeks will get their money, eventually. They vilify and bully anyone who dares to suggest the system needs to be better.”
And the backlog, Sen. Ritchie said, is not the only issue, adding that personal information of applicants has been “mishandled” and some callers are cut from the line after spending hours on hold.
“For the governor to call this pandering or a ‘cheap shot’ is not just offensive to me, it is also dismissive of the countless individuals who have gone nine weeks or more without any income,” she said. “If the governor and his staff want to truly understand what New Yorkers are up against and fully realize the need for immediate action at the New York State Department of Labor, I invite them to come answer the phones for a day in my office. Maybe then, they will realize that sticking up for these people is far from ‘cheap.’”