Another way in which benefits are difficult to access, this time for the unemployed

You can’t tell me the State of New York doesn’t have the clout to find a bank with more ATMs (and no fees) to handle the distribution of unemployment benefits. This situation is horrendous. Just one more example of how the people who are poor, even if only temporarily, are treated poorly as well.

The line started small about two months ago with a handful of people who had recently been laid off. But now, nearly three months into the economic crisis, which has claimed more than 40 million jobs nationwide, it stretches 50 or 60 people long throughout the day and down almost an entire Manhattan block.

They are all waiting to access the same thing: the lone A.T.M. inside the only New York City branch for KeyBank, a regional Ohio bank in charge of distributing unemployment benefits to out-of-work New Yorkers.

The state provides benefits through direct deposit or on KeyBank debit cards. KeyBank has higher one-time withdrawal limits than other banks and doesn’t charge a fee, making it a better option for many unemployed.

So from dawn to dusk, hundreds of people wait in line in a scene that starkly reflects the financial toll that the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis have inflicted on workers.

Even as some states across the country, including parts of New York, start to reopen — with people going back to work and stores getting back to business — the daily line outside the KeyBank branch in Manhattan is a vivid reminder that, for many, their economic suffering isn’t over yet.

It also underscores the struggle that many states, including New York, faced in meeting the needs of an enormous avalanche of suddenly unemployed workers as much of the country shut down. Government websites meant to accept unemployment claims were crashing and some people were — and still are — unable to reach state employees on the phone.

In New York, the claims backlog finally has started to ease as more people receive benefits. But now accessing their money has become another hurdle.

“It’s terrible,” said Mandy Zaxanz, who spent 45 minutes traveling from her Brooklyn home to the A.T.M. It took her more than two-and-a-half hours to reach the machine.

Ms. Zaxanz, who lost her job at a Manhattan hotel in March and waited nearly eight weeks to get her first unemployment payment, said she needed money to pay rent and buy food.

Though the debit cards loaded with unemployment benefits can be used at other bank A.T.M.s, KeyBank allows withdrawals of as much as $1,500 at a time. Other banks have far lower transaction limits and some impose fees.

As a result, people who need cash to pay large bills, like housing costs, are willing to travel far and endure the long line.

KeyBank officials said they would step up efforts, including stationing employees outside the branch, to let people know that they can withdraw money at other banks. But state officials criticized the bank for not doing more sooner.

As Ms. Zaxanz waited, she prayed the A.T.M. would not run out of money, as it had when she tried to use it last week. It also ran out on Wednesday afternoon, which led to furious people punching nearby windows.

Not far behind Ms. Zaxanz was Anthony Brown, 69, who lost his custodian job in March and said he did not know where else he could use the card because he did not own a computer to search online.

“I come here to get the most out,” Mr. Brown said.

He filed for unemployment over the phone in early April but did not receive the card until last week. Mr. Brown later discovered that his application had been incomplete.

So far this year, more than 2.5 million unemployment claims have been filed in the state. Roughly half have been from people who lost jobs in New York City, where some of its largest industries — the service sector in particular — have been especially hard hit. About 500,000 people in the state receive their benefits on a KeyBank card.

The people in line at the bank are a cross-section of the city’s economy and represent its most vulnerable workers — janitors, bartenders, school bus drivers, deliverers — who struggled to survive even during normal times with low-paying jobs. Some brought their children, others used walkers to move around and most traveled there from outside Manhattan.

All were there for the same reason as Jose Francisco, 55, who lost his job as an insurance agent in March. They needed money for the basics: groceries, utility bills, monthly rent.

At KeyBank, people can withdraw as much as $1,500 at a time, but the bank has only one branch in New York City.
At KeyBank, people can withdraw as much as $1,500 at a time, but the bank has only one branch in New York City.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Mr. Francisco, who lives in the Bronx, said he would use the cash to buy a money order to help pay a portion of his $996 monthly rent, which he has not paid in full in more than two months.

“Out of all the banks, they chose the one with one branch in the city,” said Mr. Francisco about the only A.TM. without fees and with a high limit. “It’s insane.”

People who live in the residential high-rises on the street said they have seen lines at all hours of the day. On Wednesday, when it rained part of the day, the line hugged close to the buildings. On Thursday, a bus driver who lost her job of 16 years said she had stood there “too many times to count.”

“It’s such a travesty of inequity,” said Peter Wiener, who lives on the block and has tried for weeks to alert KeyBank’s corporate offices about the situation. “It’s all day every day, and it’s only getting worse.”

The state awarded a contract to KeyBank in 2015 to manage the distribution of unemployment claims in New York. The state gave the bank the highest score in a competitive bid and selected KeyBank over Bank of America.

People getting unemployment benefits have another option to avoid fees, which can range from $1.50 to $3 per transaction, by using the card at other A.T.M.s in the Allpoint network, which has 1,000 locations in New York City, including a handful within walking distance of the KeyBank branch.

Those A.T.M.s have smaller withdrawal limits per transaction, usually around $200 to $400, though they can be used consecutively every day until $1,500 is taken out, a KeyBank spokeswoman, Kimberly Kowalski, said.

The bank said this information is included in documentation that comes with the debit cards and that an email was recently sent to recipients about other ways to withdraw money.

The KeyBank A.T.M. is now stocked with 100 times more cash than it would be in a normal week, the bank said.

“We understand the frustration,’’ Ms. Kowalski said. “These are uncertain times, emotions are running high and claimants need access to their funds quickly.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat who represents a large part of Midtown Manhattan, wrote a letter this week to KeyBank officials asking them to waive all out-of-network fees at A.T.M.s. In a recent letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, demanded that the state and KeyBank better inform the card holders about other A.T.M. options.

In recent days, fliers have started to appear on the front of the bank branch that tell people about the other locations at which they can get cash. But on Thursday, that information was written only in English and not seen by people until after they had waited for hours.

In the coming days, KeyBank said it would dispatch representatives to stand outside the bank for 10 hours every day and tell people that they have other options.

“It is entirely unacceptable that the bank failed to communicate those options to unemployed New Yorkers during this crisis,” said Deanna Cohen, a spokeswoman at the New York Department of Labor. “We want to remind New Yorkers with KeyBank debit cards that they can switch to direct deposit at any time on the D.O.L. website.”

People wait in line for two to three hours outside the KeyBank branch in Manhattan. 
People wait in line for two to three hours outside the KeyBank branch in Manhattan. Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Among those in line on Thursday were Juleiddy De Leon and her mother, Carmen Taveras. Ms. De Leon, 19, was expecting to start an office clerk job during the summer before her sophomore year at Northeastern University in Boston. The position was eliminated before school ended.

Ms. Taveras, a janitor at an office building in Manhattan, had her work schedule cut in half. They were hoping to withdraw $1,500 to buy groceries, which they spend about $80-$100 on every day to help feed their family of five.

“The people you see here are mostly Hispanic and low-income,” said Ms. De Leon, who lives in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. “Some don’t know you have the option to get a check.”

After about three hours in line, she finally reached the bank’s entryway with the A.T.M. and emerged with $1,000. Ms. De Leon said the A.T.M. would not allow her to take out $1,500, even though she had not used it anywhere else that day.

“My feet hurt,” she said afterward. “My back hurts.”

She then excused herself because she had to help an older woman in line behind her who spoke little English and did not know how to use an A.T.M.

Matthew Haag covers the intersection of real estate and politics in the New York region. He previously was a general assignment and breaking news reporter at The Times and worked as an education reporter at The Dallas Morning News. @matthewhaag

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