Lisa Nunes spent countless hours on the phone trying to reach the New Jersey unemployment office, with no success.
"I called a hundred times a day at one point for days on end. I kept dialing," said Nunes, from Mantua, Gloucester County. "I tried calling at 7:30 when the office opened at 8. It's horrible. I don't know where we're supposed to go."
Nunes was recently laid off from her job in accounting at a South Jersey car dealership. Like so many others in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, she now has a new full-time, though unpaid, job: trying to call the state unemployment office.
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Nunes was seeking to get help to troubleshoot a problem she encountered while filing for unemployment online. With no luck reaching someone over the phone, Nunes filed an appeal online.
Fortunately, she began receiving unemployment payments days later.
"I feel like they should have been more prepared. You know this is coming and now you have thousands of people who need help," Nunes said. "A lot of these people have no money."
Jen Szostek worked as a program specialist with people who have developmental disabilities in Montgomery County until she lost her job in March. She says her efforts to reach the Pennsylvania unemployment office were short-lived.
"It was frustrating and annoying. I never actually got a hold of a person. All I got was a busy signal," she said. "I tried for a couple hours and tried again and again, until I gave up."
She is still waiting for her first unemployment check. "I have some good family and friends who are helping me, and my company has given us some paid time-off money to keep me afloat," Szostek said.
Szostek found some hope and guidance when she reached State Rep. Joe Ciresi's office. The Norristown woman does not live in his district, which covers western Montgomery County. But Ciresi's chief of staff Alex Teplyakov says the office has received dozens of calls and emails in the past several weeks about unemployment filing issues and has not turned anyone away.
"We can answer a lot of the questions and help clear up the lines. We're able to explain technical issues. We can offer peace of mind. We're able to reassure them and give them the answers they need without them having to reach unemployment, " Teplyakov said.
And the states recognize their unemployment filing systems are overburdened. So each state has offered other ways of getting through to a representative via email that avoids having to call:
New Jersey: firstname.lastname@example.org
State unemployment websites warn that it can take 12 days to get a response. Representatives with Pennsylvania answered 11,300 emails just on Monday.
Mildred Hill's experience trying to reach the unemployment office over the phone has been much more positive. She's nearing retirement now, after taking her first job at age 14. She never thought she would be filing for unemployment.
But COVID-19 related layoffs become her new reality. Hearing the horror stories, she expected the worst when she called Pennsylvania's unemployment line -- but she got through after a 20-minute wait on Monday.
"I just held on and someone actually came on and I was actually surprised," Hill said. "I had friends who could not get on, so I was very surprised and considered it as a true blessing."
Not everyone is that blessed, which Teplyakov says is an unfortunate reality.
"My best recommendation is to file online, go onto the unemployment compensation website and look at the updates," he said. "If you are prompted to reach unemployment by phone but you can't get through, call your state representative. We'll work to find a solution."