In early December, Alex Branch’s car broke down. A 23-year-old former arcade employee in southern Virginia, 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,” Branch wrote on r/Unemployment, a Reddit forum whose popularity has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
The next day, another user commented on 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.”
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%, 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 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.
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 posting, people must include the state they’re in and are reminded to search for an answer before posting a new question. 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 a report from the Labor Department on Thursday, over 20 million Americans are receiving some form of unemployment benefits, and over 1 million filed new claims last week. 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.
Unemployment insurance is typically funded and administered by states. 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,” Branch said of his attempts to figure out if he could restart payments under the latest legislation, which went into effect Dec. 27. “It keeps changing and there’s no, there’s no 100% certain thing in it.”
Branch received his first payment under the extension Thursday morning. 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.
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.
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, 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, 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.
After months of searching for work, 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 VEC 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.”