A conveyor belt of cash-strapped New Yorkers — most of them unemployed and some from as far as Queens — queue up every day at an ATM on East 22nd Street. They wait more than two hours on a block-long line, where there is little social distancing and plenty of frustration.
The weary individuals risk catching the coronavirus, in part, because the state issued them — and thousands of other city residents — debit cards for unemployment benefits through KeyBank, which has only a single branch and ATM in the entire city. The branch in Flatiron is closed due to COVID-19, but one ATM is open.
On Wednesday, customers baked in 79-degree temperatures as they waited, many listlessly looking at cell phones and others agitated, sitting on curbs and leaning on cars.
Some said they endured the line and rolled the dice on their health to avoid getting gouged with surcharges at out-of-network banks. Others said the KeyBank machine was the only one where they could get a daily maximum withdrawal of $1,500. And some simply didn’t know that the bank was part of a network of 1,000 ATMs — because neither the state nor the bank told them when they sent the “Key2Benefits” cards.
“It’s crazy, but we have to do it,” said May Adams, 73, who withdrew $500 for rent. She walked across town to the East 22nd Street branch from her home in Chelsea.
Eric Kwan, 40, a former Food Network “Chopped” champion who is now out of work, said he biked from Chinatown to save $3.
“I have all the time in the world now,” he said. “But I wish the government would at least waive these fees for the other banks.
The lack of social distancing on the giant line worries him.
“We’re all crowding,” he said. “Not everyone knows what six feet apart is. … Some people don’t wear masks.”
“If this continues … it’s going to get crazier,” he said. “People will do desperate things.”
Siouxche Sharpe, 33, who was furloughed by FedEx in April, stood off to the side of the line because she has “slight claustrophobia” and fears catching the deadly virus. She traveled to the ATM from the Bronx.
“This sucks. This is ridiculous that there’s just one branch,” she said. “There’s no organization and no consideration.”
She also lamented that “it’s hard to keep the mask on this long under the hot sun.”
Sharpe wouldn’t disclose how much cash she needed, but said, “Like everybody else, I gotta live, I gotta eat, I gotta keep the lights on.”
One man walked up to the ATM door and asked the line-sitters, “You guys waiting for the ATM?”
Told where the end of the line was, he groaned, “Oh, sh-t.”
Vicente Flores, 45, an out-of-work line cook from Queens, waited nearly three hours before getting to the teller machine. “I feel tired … but I need the money,” he said. Flores, who has a wife and two children, withdrew $500 towards his $1,500-a-month apartment rent in Astoria. Flores said he pays his landlord piecemeal because he also needs to buy food.
Flores said he didn’t have “any idea” there were other free ATMs available and since it was a KeyBank card he simply went to the KeyBank branch and took his place in line.
“This is every day since the beginning of April,” groused a doorman, who spends most of his shift trying to clear the bank patrons blocking the entrance to the luxe, 60-story condo 1 Madison. It’s where superstar NFL quarterback Tom Brady and Brazilian supermodel wife Gisele Bündchen lived until 2018.
A crisis communications professional who lives in the neighborhood said he’s witnessed the long lines of “exhausted, frustrated” customers for weeks. He walks in the middle of the roadway now to keep his distance from the sidewalk sitters.
“You are always hoping the money doesn’t run out or the machine doesn’t break down,” said Kelvin Hill, 50, a former boxer and current actor who cooled his heels for two hours. “Everybody is just trying to keep it together right now.”
A KeyBank spokeswoman said they will be adding signage at the East 22nd Street branch “to remind of the importance of social distancing.”
The spokeswoman noted KeyBank has branches in Westchester County towns of Eastchester and New Rochelle.
That was little solace to Maya Sultanova, who said, “KeyBank bad!”
The bank also has surcharge-free access to cardholders at any Allpoint ATM locations, of which there are more than 100 in Manhattan, the spokeswoman said.
Furloughed FedEx worker Sharpe said she noticed a reference to Allpoint on the state Labor Department and KeyBank websites and paperwork that came with her card but “it seemed like another hassle.” She said after all the aggravation people experienced getting the cards, “no one is going through the labor” of examining “the fine print.”
Kwan agreed, saying he’s been withdrawing money on his debit card since April, each time at the East 22nd Street bank. “It’s not efficient for sure. They should have at least one person working in the bank offering customer service. I didn’t even think to look for that information (about alternate ATMs). Maybe I’m clueless but the information should be shown to me without hassle.”
KeyBank is a Cleveland-based institution with $156 billion in assets and branches in 15 states, but only one in New York City.
“There are more than 1,000 ATMs in New York City that KeyBank debit cardholders can use for free, including over 100 in each borough, and it is entirely unacceptable that the bank failed to communicate those options to unemployed New Yorkers,” said state Department of Labor spokeswoman Deanna Cohen.
“Every business has a responsibility to provide services in a way that ensures public health during this pandemic and the bank must implement immediate corrective measures.” In addition, Governor Cuomo waived ATM fees from state-regulated banks through at least June 6, she said.
Cohen said nearly 80% of unemployed New Yorkers receive their benefits through direct deposit — “which is the fastest, most efficient way to access your benefits and allows you to use your existing bank — the remainder choose to use KeyBank debit cards at no cost.”
The state said KeyBank was selected in 2015 to handle state’s unemployment insurance payments via a competitive Request for Proposals.