Unemployed New Yorkers Can’t Reach Human Agents at the Labor Department

A Rochester man lost his job while his daughter went through cancer treatment. He’s struggled to communicate with the DOL for months.

Maxwell Parrott   ·   December 5, 2023
A line of unemployment seekers waits in a San Francisco benefits office during the Great Depression in a black-and-white image. Color clipart of a chatbot is overlayed on the left side
The Department of Labor encourages claimants to use an AI chatbot rather than calling. | Photo: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

UPDATE: On December 7, two days after this story published and six months after he first filed for unemployment, the Department of Labor informed Frank Antinetto that it had approved his claim. He stands to receive over $2,500 in retroactive benefits, dating back to a hearing in October, and $360 per week going forward.

He said it was the first time he had ever received a call from a human representative at the department.

Frank Antinetto’s battle with the New York Department of Labor started with the sudden appearance of a bruise on his 14-year-old daughter’s arm. After her hospital admission on May 22, she was diagnosed with leukemia in Rochester and sent a thousand miles away, to a children’s cancer center in Memphis. Antinetto, a janitor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, texted his boss that he would miss work while his daughter Jazzy went through chemotherapy.

Within a month of Jazzy’s diagnosis, Antinetto was fired, supposedly for failing to let his employer know his whereabouts. He filed for unemployment insurance, which would have paid him $440 per week.

The Labor Department denied his claim, saying he hadn’t offered a “compelling reason” for leaving his job. Antinetto filed an appeal, and eventually, the department reversed its decision, telling Antinetto he should have qualified after all.

But the case was complex. Because he was in Memphis, it was unclear if Antinetto would be able to prove he was seeking work in New York state, as required to receive his benefits. He wanted the help of someone who knew how the bureaucracy worked. He called the Department of Labor dozens of times, but he couldn’t get through to a human — he would go through a suite of automated menu options, then get kicked off. At one point, he even flew back to Rochester to visit his local DOL office.

“It literally just says, ‘All of our representatives are busy, try your call again later,’ and it just hangs up,” Antinetto told New York Focus. “You can call back at 8:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the afternoon, noon, and it’s like the same thing.”

After more than six months of pursuit, he still hasn’t gotten a cent.

Frank Antinetto, his daughter Jazzy, wife Mykel Sarfaty-Antinetto, and Jazzy's service dog Theo. | WHEC

In spite of New York’s progressive reputation, Antinetto’s situation is common. In the second quarter of 2023, the state granted 90 percent of unemployment applications. But among cases that get denied, New York is in the top 15 states with the highest rates of improper decisions. A recent federal report estimated that one in eight New York claimants who were denied unemployment insurance were actually eligible for benefits.

The Labor Department’s critics say these figures stem from systematic administrative dysfunction — and the wrong set of priorities to fix it. Amid an unprecedented crisis of unemployment, the state Department of Labor took on a tech-focused overhaul, urging benefits-seekers to consult the DOL’s website rather than its overwhelmed staff. While staff lament low pay, poor training, and high attrition, the department touts the debut of its AI-powered chatbot, Perkins.

“Improving New York’s Unemployment Insurance system has been a priority for Commissioner Reardon, which includes the use of technology to make the process easier for our customers,” DOL spokesperson Beau Duffy wrote in a statement. “The centerpiece of this effort is a brand new, state of the art computer system, scheduled to go online in 2024, which will significantly improve the UI process for both claimants and NYSDOL employees.”

A Labor Department staff member, who asked not to be identified for fear of professional reprisal, told New York Focus that labor service representatives “are not getting adequate training. [We are] told to go watch videos to train.” While claimants like Antinetto are left stranded by administrative issues, they said, “the new tech so far is a disaster.”

It’s virtually impossible to use the DOL’s helpline to solicit advice and exchange unemployment case information, legal advocates told New York Focus.

“I can tell you that there are very few of my clients who are able to get through to the Department of Labor,” said Nicole Salk, an attorney with Legal Services NYC who specializes in unemployment cases. “That is the problem over and over and over.”

The DOL told New York Focus that there are 275 employees who respond to calls, but that the center receives about 25,000 calls per day — nearly triple its pre-pandemic volume. As of October, New York listed 428,700 people as unemployed. In one week at the end of November, the DOL received over 15,500 initial unemployment claims.

“The new tech so far is a disaster.”

—Labor services employee

The pandemic triggered a crisis throughout the DOL, as a surge of unemployment claims overwhelmed its systems and the department lost billions to fraud. Experts and staff say Commissioner Roberta Reardon’s focus on tech is an inadequate solution for the agency’s staffing and training shortages.

The modernization didn’t start with the pandemic, either. The DOL’s current effort to improve its website and computer system has been in the works since 2017 — years before the deluge of unemployment cases in 2020.

Now, the DOL encourages New Yorkers to use “self-service options” before calling. According to the department, “Many calls can be easily remedied using Perkins, which can assist claimants with many needs and reduce call volume.”

The call center’s unresponsiveness is directly tied to New York’s high rate of improper denials, said Alexa Tapia, an unemployment policy expert with the National Employment Law Project. She attributes both problems to a “lack of trained staff and an overly complicated and confusing [unemployment insurance] system.”

Tapia and other advocates say the problems boil down to the allocation of resources. Much of the unemployment division’s workforce is paid a low-tier state salary for a complex job, fueling attrition and forcing the agency to hire people without many qualifications. The starting salary for senior employment security clerks, who handle the intake of unemployment claims, is $40,193.

The DOL noted that its unemployment division is dependent on federal, rather than state, funding. The agency’s numbers show a decline of 17 total workers from 2019 and 2023. But internal staffing grids show that the unemployment division lost 111 permanent workers between March 2019 and June 2023, without including hourly workers.

“Underskilled staff are promoted instead of trying to attract better educated staff since pay is so low,” the Labor Department staffer told New York Focus.

Salk, the Legal Services attorney, said she routinely encounters staff who don’t know or misunderstand basic facets of unemployment law. Since unemployment cases often require additional documentation and involve complex rules that are not accessible to most people, she pointed out, it’s important that claimants can connect with a professional who understands the system.

When Antinetto first applied for unemployment in June, he had an initial intake call where he told a Labor Department representative that he had to leave his job to take care of Jazzy — a type of voluntary separation that state law recognizes as a “good cause quit” and leaves one eligible for unemployment. But workers claiming this status have to prove they made an effort to avoid quitting, according to legal advocates. On August 15, the DOL denied his claim based on the Rochester Institute of Technology’s report that he had abandoned his post without properly informing his employer and not addressing an offer to take an unpaid leave of absence. His calls to appeal the ruling went unanswered.

WHEC
WHEC

Left: Jazzy and Mykel return to Rochester from Memphis. Right: Jazzy with Theo

New tech is an increasingly popular solution for labor departments across the country, according to Ian Greer, a research professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. But its track record is decidedly mixed.

A 2020 National Employment Law Project report found that denial rates shot up in states that had completed modernization efforts, even as they declined in other states. In systems that incorporated automated technology to determine eligibility, the “quality of decisions” declined.

The tech can’t help claimants who need “a human being who can work with them to fix whatever mistake or problem they’re having,” Greer said.

In addition to the state’s internal administrative issues, an “unemployment cost management” industry has popped up through private companies like Equifax, which contracts with employers to automatically fight workers’ claims on their behalf.

“They will argue that for a variety of reasons, this worker is indeed not eligible or did not separate from employment in a qualifying manner,” Tapia said. “That can really either tie up the claim or end up with it being improperly denied altogether.”

That’s what happened in Antinetto’s case. A notice that the Labor Department sent him in October shows that RIT contracted with Equifax to handle his unemployment claim. (The university told New York Focus that it would not discuss the personal information of current or past employees and did not comment on its use of Equifax.)

After his initial denial, Antinetto resumed contact with RIT’s human resources department to correct his dismissal. In late August, the school informed him that the Labor Department had notified it that Antinetto’s appeal was granted. He was eligible for benefits. But the DOL had never sent him any notice, he said.

“It literally just says, ‘All of our representatives are busy, try your call again later,’ and it just hangs up.”

—Frank Antinetto

Antinetto tried to get back pay for the lost months, but at a hearing in mid-October, a judge denied him retroactive benefits. The judge did rule that he could start to receive benefits if he could prove that he was looking for work — a standard that legal advocates say is often ambiguous and difficult to prove for caretakers.

While in Memphis, Antinetto and his wife received free meals and lodging from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. For everything else, he said, “We’ve been living off of family and just donations from people.”

The family arrived back in Rochester at the end of November, and “still to this date, I haven’t received one penny from unemployment,” Antinetto said. “I haven’t worked since May 22.”

Last week, a DOL representative in the Rochester office told him he would have to start a new unemployment claim. He’s waiting out the 14-day period to get an initial response.

Maxwell Parrott is a freelance journalist based in New York City.