In Michigan and New York you can only call on certain days of the week, depending on your last name. In New Jersey, it’s hourly slots based on your social security number. Ask for help in Texas and you might end up engaging with a guy called Larry, who’s really just a bot.

Across the U.S., state governments are scrambling –- and sometimes failing -- to cope with the historic surge in unemployment claims triggered by the coronavirus recession.

An additional 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week according to new numbers out Thursday. That took the staggering toll to 16.8 million claims in three weeks, or one in 10 American workers.

Yet even those numbers don’t capture all the strains that have brought social infrastructure in the world’s biggest economy close to breaking point, and tested the patience of the many people still struggling even to lodge claims after being plunged into an economic crisis.

Call-centers that process applications can barely hire people fast enough. Answering services are overwhelmed. Decades-old computer systems aren’t up to the task, forcing people in Florida this week to wait hours for the paper forms that turned out to be the only way to avoid an overcrowded online system and register for benefits.

“It’s not just high volumes. It’s completely off the scales of what was thought was possible in an economic downturn,” said Josh Richardson, chief of staff at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. “We were unprepared for what occurred. I’m not too reluctant to say that.”

‘It’s Complete Gridlock’

Two weeks ago, more than 120,000 people in Indiana applied for unemployment benefits. That’s more than quadruple the previous weekly record, set in January 2009 at the height of the Great Recession.

At one point, it translated to 65 new calls per second on the unemployment hotline, overwhelming not just the humans picking up the phones, but the automated answering service too.

State officials have a daunting double task. They’re bracing for another wave of claims, and also figuring out how to clear their backlog.

n Connecticut, that could take six weeks and some new computer code, according to Nancy Steffens. She’s a spokeswoman for the state labor department, which would receive about 3,000 claims in a normal week and has gotten more than 100 times that amount since mid-March.

On the other end of the process are millions of Americans suddenly deprived of their livelihoods. And even those who manage to file their claims aren’t out of the woods.

Mark Francis, a freelance photographer in Houston, applied April 1. More than a week on, he’s still trying to work his way through the Texas bureaucracy, which wants more information.

“You can’t get through on the phone lines no matter what time you call,” he said. “It’s complete gridlock.”

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