A record 3.3 million people filed for initial unemployment benefits last week, with millions more anticipated in coming weeks. All this has put a huge strain on state employment agencies, so experts say persistence is key to getting those benefits.

Normally, eligible workers can apply for such benefits through their state offices online, by phone, or in person. But now, some websites are crashing, call-in lines are busy, and — obviously — offices are closed to the public.

A $2 trillion relief bill is expected to pass soon, with a $250 billion expansion of unemployment benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will give jobless workers an extra $600 a week on top of a state's existing benefits, which range from $200 to $550 a week. It will also cover some workers previously ineligible for benefits — gig and self-employed workers, as well as those whose hours have been cut or who can't work because of the pandemic.

States are also trying to staff up their unemployment offices. But that relief might not come fast enough to address the immediate needs of millions of workers.

"Unemployment systems have been underfunded for years, and have struggled to provide access to a lot of folks" even before the crisis, says Julia Simon-Mishel, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which serves low-income workers.

So what should a recently laid-off worker do?

If you are eligible, but aren't able to get through on your first try, just keep trying.

"I don't like waiting on the phone for hours and hours, or having to fight with a website, but the best thing is to persist," says Kevin De Liban, an attorney for the Legal Aid of Arkansas, in West Memphis.

De Liban recommends the following:

  • Call, or try to access your state's website.
  • Document all your attempts to file your claim: Take notes of the date and time you called, how long you waited, the name of any person you spoke with. Online, take screenshots of the website. This evidence might eventually help you collect benefits dating back to when you first attempted to file for them.
  • If your claim is denied, you can appeal. Contact your legal aid advocates that can help you through the process at low or no cost.
  • Call your local elected official or local media to let them know how the process isn't working.
  • Apply for SNAP, Medicaid or other safety-net programs you might qualify for.

Even under normal circumstances, applying for jobless benefits can be tricky.

When it works well, workers can expect to see their first unemployment check arriving two to three weeks after filing their claim, says Simon-Mishel. "I would be very surprised if we're at the best-case scenario, given the volumes."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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