Eight weeks after Sandi Bachom applied for unemployment benefits in New York, she's still waiting for a check.
The 75-year-old video journalist's income has dried up, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, which has prevented her from getting on the subway or an airplane to shoot events.
"I'm completely paralyzed," said Bachom, who's mostly been confined to her apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Like many older Americans, Bachom has no retirement savings to fall back on. Her only source of income is her monthly Social Security check, which just covers her essentials.
"I don't know what people are doing," she said. "We're all broke."
That Bachom hasn't seen a check yet illustrates how difficult it has been for many jobless Americans to access the financial relief Congress made available in its historic $2 trillion stimulus package. State unemployment offices are struggling to process a flood of claims not seen since the Great Depression.
New York, for its part, has paid out $6.8 billion in unemployment benefits over the last few weeks — three times the amount it dispersed in all of 2019. More than 1.8 million applications have been processed throughout the public health crisis, compared to 833,000 in all of last year.
New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon acknowledged that many New Yorkers are anxious and frustrated as they wait for their checks to arrive, but she promised relief was on its way. "I will not rest until every New Yorker has access to the unemployment benefits they are entitled to," Reardon said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that people who have filed legitimate claims will get payments retroactive to when they first applied.
Still, the wait of more than 50 days has left Bachom in a fragile state, both financially and psychologically.
"I just sit in front of my computer and cry," she said.
Bachom's journey to collect unemployment insurance began on March 15.
She was relieved to learn that Congress, in response to the public health crisis, expanded the pool of people who are eligible for the jobless benefits to self-employed workers such as herself.
After a 40-year career in the advertising business, Bachom struck out on her own as a freelance journalist. She needs to work to stay afloat, she said.
Just completing the initial unemployment form on New York Department of Labor's website proved difficult, Bachom said. "It kept crashing."
Finally, she was able to fill out the application and submit it. Then she was instructed to follow up with a phone call to the state office. That didn't go well, either.
"You go through all these prompts, and then they disconnect you," Bachom said. "It's absolutely horrific." She estimates that she called the office more than 100 times.
For weeks, she didn't know where her application stood.
One of Bachom's roommates, who was also running into issues filing for unemployment in the state, recommended that she call the office of her state senator, Brad Hoylman. She did.
A few days later, she received a call from someone at the New York Department of Labor. He explained that for her to qualify for the new expanded unemployment insurance, she would first need to be rejected by the normal program.
That was the first time she had heard of that requirement. She asked questions, but received few answers.
"Even he didn't understand it," Bachom said.
Still, he helped her get rejected from the normal program so that she could apply for the expanded one.
Self-employed and gig workers are likely waiting longer for their unemployment checks because of this two-step process that states followed in response to federal guidance. (On April 20, New York's Department of Labor announced it was streamlining its application and no longer requiring an initial rejection.)
Bachom assumes her application has been approved because she's been asked to start the weekly certification process required to continue getting the checks.
But she hasn't seen any money yet.
"The $1,200 was nice, but how long does that last?" she said, referring to the one-time stimulus checks. "It's a portion of my rent for one month.
"What about my phone bill?" Bachom asked. "What about food?"