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How Reddit Became America’s Unofficial Unemployment Hotline

How Reddit Became America’s Unofficial Unemployment Hotline

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How Reddit Became America’s Unofficial Unemployment Hotline

In early December, Alex Branch’s car broke down. A 23-year-old former arcade employee in southern Virginia, Mr. Branch had been receiving unemployment benefits since he was laid off in March, and figured he would have no problem paying for the repairs. But when he checked his bank account, he was troubled to find that the payments had stopped.

He had failed to get useful information from his state’s unemployment office before, so he turned to the one place he figured he could get an explanation: Reddit.

“I’m very confused and have no idea what to do,” Mr. Branch wrote on r/Unemployment, a Reddit forum whose popularity has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

The next day, another user commented on Mr. Branch’s post, using a common abbreviation for Extended Benefits, an emergency unemployment program. “Were you on EB? If so, EB was cut off Nov 21.”

Mr. Branch hadn’t realized he had been on Extended Benefits, which kicked in after he exhausted 26 weeks of regular unemployment plus 13 additional weeks granted in the March pandemic stimulus bill. Virginia stopped payments because the state’s unemployment rate had fallen under 5 percent, triggering an end to federal funding for the Extended Benefits program.

“I didn’t know about it,” he said in an interview. “That’s the biggest frustration that I had about it was the fact that I never received the email that it was going to be shut off.”

For many of the millions of Americans like Mr. Branch who lost jobs because of the coronavirus, the stress of being unemployed in a pandemic has been compounded by the difficulty of navigating disorganized and often antiquated state and federal unemployment systems. Information from overwhelmed state offices and websites is often confusing, and reaching an official who can answer questions nearly impossible.

Faced with a seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy between them and a financial lifeline, many have turned to what seems like the only place left to go for help — the internet.

As unemployment claims shot up early in the pandemic, so did posts on r/Unemployment, one of the many topic-based forums on the site known as subreddits. The subreddit once typically had fewer than 10 posts a day, but it quickly ballooned to nearly 1,000 posts a day in April and May. As the crisis wore on, posts and comments spiked in the weeks following changes to benefit programs. In January, nearly 10 months after the first lockdowns, the forum had one of its busiest weeks ever, driven by delays in payments and uncertainty around legislation signed late last year.

Number of posts per day on the r/Unemployment subreddit

3/27 Stimulus signed into law that
expanded unemployment benefits.

7/31 Additional $600 per
week in benefits from
stimulus bill expired.

8/8 Program announced
to give an extra $300 a
week for up to six weeks
to some unemployed.

Many states did not start
making the additional $300
payments until September.

12/27 New bill signed to
continue federal benefits,
but its last-minute nature
has caused delays in
payments.

12/26 Last day
of payments
from federal
benefits that
were set to
expire.

Week of 1/10:
Over 5,500 posts on
r/Unemployment, plus
47,000 comments from
8,000 people.

3/27 Stimulus signed into law that
expanded unemployment benefits.

Mondays tend to be busier (though
not on holidays like Memorial Day).

8/8 Program announced to give an extra
$300 a week for up to six weeks to some
unemployed.

7/31 Additional $600 per week in
benefits from stimulus bill expired.

Many states did not start making the
additional $300 payments until September.

12/27 New bill signed to continue federal
benefits, but its last-minute nature has caused
delays in payments.

12/26 Last day of payments
from federal benefits that were
set to expire.

Week of 1/10:
Over 5,500 posts on r/Unemployment,
plus 47,000 comments from 8,000 people.

3/27 Stimulus signed into law that
expanded unemployment benefits.

Mondays tend to be busier
(though not on holidays like
Memorial Day).

8/8 Program announced
to give an extra $300 a
week for up to six weeks
to some unemployed.

7/31 Additional $600 per week in
benefits from stimulus bill expired.

12/26 Last day of
payments from federal
benefits that were set to
expire.

Many states did not start
making the additional $300
payments until September.

12/27 New bill signed to continue expanded
benefits, but its last-minute nature caused
delays in payments.

Week of 1/10:
Over 5,500 posts on r/Unemployment,
plus 47,000 comments from 8,000 people.

3/27 Stimulus signed into law that
expanded unemployment benefits.

7/31 Additional $600 per week in
benefits from stimulus bill expired.

8/8 Program announced to give
an extra $300 a week for up to six
weeks to some unemployed.

Many states did not start making the
additional $300 payments until
September.

12/27 New bill signed to continue
federal benefits, but its last-minute
nature has caused delays in payments.

12/26 Last day of
payments from
federal benefits that
were set to expire.

Week of 1/10:
Over 5,500 posts on r/Unemployment,
plus 47,000 comments from 8,000
people.

Note: Daily number of posts does not include comments. Posts that have since been removed or deleted are included.·Source: Reddit

As hiring stalls and the economy shows signs of slowing again, the continued popularity of r/Unemployment underscores how the system remains broken for so many people.

As of this week, roughly 70,000 people were subscribed to the forum. When asking a question, people must include the state they’re in, and are reminded to search for an answer before posting a new query. The moderators help keep the conversation on topic by removing posts that don’t meet the forum’s criteria. Much of the activity on r/Unemployment also happens in the comments of individual posts, where people answer questions, share information and tips, or simply commiserate.

According to last week’s Labor Department report, nearly 18 million Americans were receiving some form of state or federal unemployment benefits, and over one million filed new claims. That’s down from the peak of over 30 million over the summer, but it still represents a number that federal and state assistance programs that are outdated and cobbled together are still struggling to handle.

Weekly unemployment claims from people already receiving benefits, by program

Pandemic Unemployment
Assistance: Benefits for
gig workers and the
self-employed

Other
programs,
including
Extended
Benefits

Pandemic
Emergency
Unemployment
Compensation:
Extra weeks for
those who have
exhausted their
regular benefits

Pandemic Emergency
Unemployment Compensation:
Extra weeks for those who have
exhausted their regular benefits

Other programs,
including Extended
Benefits

Pandemic Unemployment
Assistance: Benefits for gig
workers and the self-employed

Pandemic Emergency
Unemployment Compensation:
Extra weeks for those who
have exhausted their regular benefits

Other programs, including
Extended Benefits

Pandemic Unemployment
Assistance: Benefits for gig
workers and the self-employed

Note: Continuing claims are not seasonally adjusted. Claims made by people newly applying for benefits (initial claims) are not included. Some retroactive claims were reported on the date they were paid, rather than the original date of the claim.·Source: Labor Department

Unemployment insurance is typically funded and administered at the state level. But because of the pandemic, the federal stimulus package passed in March supplied funding for programs that expanded who could apply for unemployment and how long someone could receive benefits, as well as increased the amount people were receiving.

Almost a year later, different parts of the package have expired and been extended or altered at different times.

“It’s like studying ghosts,” Mr. Branch said of his attempts to figure out if he could restart payments under the latest legislation, which went into effect on Dec. 27. “It keeps changing and there’s no, there’s no 100 percent certain thing in it.”

So far, Mr. Branch has not received any benefits under the extension, though according to the state, his first payment would go out this week. It took weeks for Virginia to announce when payments would begin again for many people as officials slowly enacted the new regulations.

Traversing an overwhelmed system

Post after post on r/Unemployment conveys bureaucratic problems with endless variations: how to file a claim depending on your circumstances, what to do if you made a mistake on your claim, what different statuses on your claim might mean, how to navigate confusing and glitch-prone online portals and even how to speak to an actual person to get issues resolved.

April 2
Texas
Given a phone number to call but it never goes through!!

I see this is a very common issue at the moment, as I have completed my application and got a new message, which just tells me to call a number because they have questions about my application. I have called 200 times now and it just beeps and hangs up every time. I am very very frustrated. Is there another number i can call?

Sept. 30
Michigan
Boy I tell ya! The Trickery with no treat, an it’s not even Halloween yet!

WTH! Is there hope? Is anybody else not getting through to unemployment once in the cue? Ive been in the cue 7 times this morning. I get past entering SS, pin, birthdate and her beautiful voice will tell me one time “two hours or more wait” blah, blah! As soon as she’s done saying that she says “due to please try again later” blah, blah! Then has me talk to my friend Tone, Apparently she doesn’t know that I haven’t been friends with him in a long time! So frustrated!

Jammed phone lines are something Mr. Branch has become particularly used to. His girlfriend was also laid off in March and soon went on unemployment. Months later she began receiving notices to repay $4,194 in benefits. In October, Mr. Branch called the Virginia employment commission to ask for an explanation. He said his phone logged 453 calls before anyone picked up.

Oct. 14
Virginia
Can’t get a hold to anyone at the employment commission.

My girlfriend received a letter about owing money, even though we’ve appealed months ago. We called someone at the VEC and they directed us to this number (806) 786 8593. The problem is, we cannot get an answer. It stays busy or simply doesn’t even ring. I did manage to get a person on the line while my girlfriend was at work, but they couldn’t help me because she wasn’t with me. Why won’t they answer? Is there another number I can call??

(Mr. Branch’s girlfriend filed an appeal the first time she had been notified — which was shortly after she had returned to work in May. The appeal just moved into review at the end of last month.)

Fraud creating delays

Earlier in the pandemic, the deluge of unemployment claims and technical glitches slowed the processing of payments to a crawl. Now, some payments are also being delayed as states investigate claims for possible fraud or errors.

At the end of last year, California revealed that billions in benefits had been paid fraudulently, and subsequently halted payments to 1.4 million people because of fraud concerns. Other states have had similar issues, though at a smaller scale. For people who rely on these benefits to pay for necessities like rent or food, a delayed payment can feel like no payment.

Jan. 1
California
Benefit Suspended Because “may be tied to fraudulent activity”

It seems a LOT of people are getting a message that their benefits have been temporarily suspended because it “may be tied to fraudulent activity.”I just saw this half an hour ago, about 30 minutes before 2021 kicked in.I HAVE NOT COMMITTED FRAUD! My rent is due tomorrow, along with other bills! The state has SHUT DOWN businesses that employed me! I cannot find work! This is NOT MY FAULT!!!

May 19
Massachusetts
Weekly claim pending not being paid while an issue is resolved

So I have been approved for benefits and this week my claim says Status: Pending “This week is not being paid while an issue is being resolved.” I have no idea what this means and have been trying to look it up to see but cannot find anything anywhere about it saying this. I’m not sure what the problem is. Nothing has changed from prior weeks I was approved and paid. This is so frustrating.

Coming to help

Many people come to r/Unemployment to offer answers, not just find them.

Albert Peers, who had been working in a call center in San Diego until the pandemic, spends time every day trying to answer questions about California’s system. He lives alone and can’t easily return to work because he has a lowered immune system. After first visiting the site when he encountered a hitch in his own unemployment benefits, Mr. Peers, 56, was shocked by the number of people who had no idea what to do.

The thought that someone might go hungry or miss rent because they were simply stymied by the system was unacceptable to him. “At that point I just made a decision,” he said. “You know what, like a couple hours every day, because I just can’t turn away.”

Like others answering questions, Mr. Peers does not have any background in unemployment insurance or state government. Some on the forum work for state unemployment offices, but the majority of those offering tips and advice are other out-of-work people who have hard-earned experience with the system.

Despite the amount of help and information being offered every day, often the only suggestions to a question are simple, if frustrating: wait for payments to arrive, or keep calling an unemployment office until they pick up.

Looking for community

R/Unemployment isn’t the only place people turn to for help online. There are additional state-specific unemployment subreddits as well as dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to navigating the unemployment system. What keeps bringing so many thousands of people back to such forums is the sense of community people have found with others going through the same difficult situations.

Mandy Fellows posted there in April after she was laid off from a tour company in Hawaii. Left with only $300 left after paying rent, she was unable to file a claim because the state website continually crashed and phone lines were clogged. When she finally could submit her claim, she made an error on her application that held up the process further.

“I turned to Reddit to vent,” she said in an email. “I knew the chances were slim I’d find help there among people who were just as uninformed, lost and traumatized as I was.”

April 7
Hawaii
Is there an emotional support group for this? Seriously.

It’s starting to get to me physically— the days weeks spent calling lines with no answers, countless failed attempts to log into my account. I’ve been exercising, meditating, feeding and watering myself, etc and it worked up until now. The sense hopelessness and frustration is crushing my chest. I have developed a sleep disorder, apparently.I understand that our systems are overwhelmed, but the lack of communication, inaction, and my fear of not having a roof over my head or ability to feed myself is eating at me.

A post in late July from a user, just as a $600 extra benefit from the federal stimulus plan was about to expire, drew nearly 500 comments about how important that additional money was.

July 21

be honest. Who here just enjoys getting paid a livable wage and be able to enjoy themselves?

I’ve put up with so much mental abuse from co workers and customers working customer service jobs, and all to bring home barely enough to pay my bills and eat. It’s put me in a several year long stretch of depression. But the past 4 months have been the happiest time of my life. I am able to feel comfortable with money, and do what I want with my time, including studying and researching things that interest me. If the 600 unemployment gets extended I have made my mind up that I will be going to school as well to learn a trade so I can do something I enjoy and make a decent living. If unemployment doesn’t get extended, it’s back to working for $11 an hour and being told I’m a piece of garbage by customers while I take their orders.

After months of searching for work, Mr. Branch is starting a new job next week. He had hoped to be able to begin before the end of January, but he tested positive for Covid, which pushed back his interview.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I’ll get a job by the end of this month. And then I can just forget about the V.E.C. and just stop bothering with it,” he said, referring to Virginia’s employment agency. “And then I got Covid and I immediately went to Reddit and I was like, OK, now I’ve got to worry again.”


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Author: Debbie

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