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How the New York State Department of Labor met an Unfathomable Challenge During the COVID-19 Pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims that required the New York Department of Labor to quickly upgrade its staffing, technology, and communication to ensure newly out-of-work New Yorkers received much-needed benefits.

“This was a Herculean effort. Almost overnight, we needed to bolster our technology, increase hiring, improve communication, and integrate new programs. It was a lot. Looking back, it is hard not to be proud of our teams' amazing work to provide people with their benefits during a difficult time.”
Emily Connor, Director of Communications, New York State Department of Labor


  • 50 years of benefits delivered in 2 years
  • 100+ million govDelivery emails sent
  • $105 billion paid to nearly 5 million New Yorkers
  • 500k subscribers to Your DOL newsletter
Must have Granicus Solutions

An Unprepared System in Transition

In February 2020, the New York State Department of Labor received 25,000 daily calls about unemployment benefits. A month later, due to the emergence of COVID-19, that number exceeded 1 million.

The start of the pandemic spurred companies to lay off millions of workers in New York State. With an outdated unemployment insurance (UI) system, inadequate staffing levels, and millions of newly unemployed New Yorkers facing an uncertain future, the department’s response needed to be bold, comprehensive, and immediate.

“In the months preceding the pandemic, New York State was experiencing record-low unemployment,” said Emily Connor, NYSDOL communications director. “As a result, the Unemployment Insurance Division staffing level was at its lowest in more than 20 years.”

To get New Yorkers their benefits, it took a reimagined approach to hiring, communication, and security; it would require a complete overhaul of NYSDOL’s technological infrastructure and call for inspired collaboration between partners in the federal government, New York State agencies, vendors, and consultants.


The Department that Never Sleeps

When the pandemic struck, the New York State Department of Labor was in year two of a multi-year, top-to-bottom overhaul of a UI infrastructure that was woefully outdated, like other state systems nationwide.

The rollout of federal aid programs added to the complexity. While these vital programs provided desperately needed assistance, the varying eligibility requirements and inconsistent start and end dates created unnecessary, burdensome complications. They were the primary reasons for building entirely new systems and processes. Under normal circumstances, these upgrades would take months, if not years, to develop.

But with so many businesses already temporarily closed and millions of New Yorkers needing benefits right away, NYSDOL knew that the UI overhaul had to be completed as soon as possible. The moment’s urgency required a multi-faceted plan to increase the speed of NYSDOL’s transformation.

Communication was a cornerstone of this strategy. Leveraging govDelivery by Granicus, NYSDOL created several newsletters targeted at different populations:

  • Your DOL: Provides 500,000 New Yorkers with NYSDOL developments twice a month, including UI updates, training and learning resources, career opportunities, and more.
  • Business Buzz: Over 50,000 business subscribers receive monthly highlights on the many resources available across New York State to support them and New York’s robust economy.
  • DOL Digest: Delivers important NYSDOL updates statewide to elected officials to empower their offices to better assist constituents with unemployment, business, and labor matters.
  • Our DOL: An internal newsletter delivered to all NYSDOL employees (3,000+), focused on what is happening within the agency, new training opportunities, technology updates, and how NYSDOL’s work impacts the lives of New Yorkers.

To better handle the staggering increase in caller volume, NYSDOL upgraded its Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system that routes callers to where they need help. These new upgrades allowed NYSDOL to answer tens of millions of calls from March 2020 to March 2022.

NYSDOL also incorporated a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to improve efficiency and workflow. Since then, NYSDOL has tied the IVR into the CRM system and anticipates, with time, it will continue to provide better customer service and management of UI claims.

The first bot was upgraded in the summer of 2021 to what is now known as Perkins, named after Frances Perkins, the creator of the national UI system in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act. Other key initiatives included:

  • Social Media Support: NYSDOL provided constant critical information to customers, who would share posts to help organically spread messaging in real time. Social media advertisements allowed NYSDOL to reach more people with essential information and target messaging to specific groups. NYSDOL also utilized bot technology via social media, including a bot to collect call-back requests from thousands of customers and a Question-and-Answer bot (an extension of Perkins).
  • Focus on Media Relations: As an epicenter of the pandemic, all eyes were on New York State’s response to the crisis. NYSDOL regularly provided updates to the media via press releases, statements, and answers to media inquiries to ensure New Yorkers received relevant information promptly.


The results speak for themselves: Between March 2020 and March 2022, NYSDOL paid out $105 billion from six different federal benefit programs to nearly 5 million New Yorkers—more than every state other than California.

Considering the yearly average, this total represents 50 years of benefits.