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Frustration builds as many Americans still wait for unemployment checks

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After Lisa Benincasa lost her job as an accountant in mid-March when her firm laid off all its employees due to the economic impact of the coronavirus, she immediately applied for unemployment. Nearly a month after being approved for benefits, the Wilmington, North Carolina, resident and mother of three is still waiting for a check. 

Despite submitting a jobless claim every Friday for the past three weeks as the state requires, she has yet to receive a cent. "It's awful and sad because I know there are so many people in my same situation," Benincasa said.

She couldn't be more right. With 16.8 million Americans having lost their jobs over the past month and applied for unemployment, frustrations are overflowing. Like Benincasa, many people are waiting for benefits to kick in or, worse, struggle even to apply as state benefits systems are swamped by others filing claims. 

In states like Florida, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, many residents say they're unable to contact their unemployment office by phone or web. The communication breakdown is spectacularly ill-timed, with Americans in urgent need of the expanded unemployment benefits to help pay bills and put food on the table. 

"You can't call them," Benincasa, 40, said of trying to reach her state's division of employment. "I think they've shut their phones off. You can call any time of day and it'll just say the call volume is too high, try back at another time."

North Carolina accountant Lisa Benincasa and her children Cayne (left), Kennedy (right) and Sydney (center) in their grandmother's Wilmington, North Carolina, home.  Donna Ruddell

Zach Job, a bartender in Queens, New York, was laid off after his employer closed and said he hasn't applied for benefits because he gets a busy signal every time he calls the state's unemployment line. Job and his roommate, fitness trainer Chad Ryan Means, said they can't afford next month's rent. 

"I'm running on faith right now," Means said. "I'm running on the fact that the system says what it says and it's going to work in my favor."

"A waiting game"

State unemployment officials said they understand residents' frustrations and are working as quickly as possible to process claims. In a bitter irony, they're even hiring extra staff to handle the barrage of jobless claims from America's swelling army of the unemployed. 

Those vast numbers are proving more than many states can handle. By way of comparison, the nearly 17 million workers who have filed for unemployment in a matter of weeks exceeds the populations of Alabama, Colorado and Minnesota—combined. 

In New Jersey, out-of-work residents have so flooded the unemployment system that Gov. Phil Murphy is asking for volunteers who know COBOL, a 40-year-old computer program that still powers the state's jobless benefits setup. 

Hundreds of thousands of residents in Florida filed for unemployment in recent weeks, crashing the application website. Claims grew so quickly that the state issued paper applications, and people reportedly formed long lines outside of public libraries, where the forms were being distributed. 

Floridians face hurdles in applying for unemployment benefits 01:58

Florida has since launched a new website and software for filing unemployment, but one expert said that has only caused further confusion. 

"Now the state is directing people to use this new software to file the claims, but it seems that both softwares do the same thing, so it's unclear if someone should use one or the other," said Daniel Rowinsky, staff unemployment attorney at Legal Services of Greater Miami. 

In North Carolina, officials said they've hired 50 more specialists to help process the roughly 450,000 claims people have filed since March 16. Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for the state's employment security division, has said the agency plans to staff up even more.

"The Division of Employment Security understands that for people who have lost their jobs, the assistance can't get there soon enough," Taylor said in a statement last week. 

More than 1.2 million people have applied for unemployment since March 15 in Pennsylvania. While some residents have already started getting benefits, the system still has issues, said Julia Simon-Mishel, an unemployment attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. That includes paperwork written only in English, hindering non-English speakers seeking aid. The state also was slow to create a mobile version its application website.

More than 16 million Americans lost their job due to coronavirus 02:11

Hope Buskirk worked at a truck stop in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, for four months before her company furloughed its employees on March 14. Buskirk, 24, said she applied for unemployment a few days prior because she expected her job to cut hours.

Pennsylvania approved Buskirk's application, and she got an email from the state on March 24 instructing her to wait for a pin number to use when filing her weekly claim. She's still waiting for the pin. 

"It's basically a waiting game for anyone that has filed," Buskirk said. "I got in there relatively early and I'm still waiting, so what's going to happen with people who were still working that last week of March?"

—CBS News' Durrell Dawson contributed to this report.

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