Jobless benefit filing systems all over the country are crashing this week as an unprecedented wave of tens of thousands of newly unemployed Americans scrambles to survive.

The states are saying that their web sites are going down because they are already overloaded with data on the 4.5 million now collecting benefits, the highest number in 26 years.

In many states where the systems have not yet crashed the newly unemployed are left to hold on the phone lines for hours or are cut off with “all lines are busy” messages.

On Jan. 6 systems in New York, North Carolina and Ohio were shut down completely. New York’s phone and Internet claims system started to fail on Jan. 5 and was out of service completely on Jan. 6. It was restored a day later but workers there still report waiting hours to get help.

“Regardless of when you call, be prepared to wait and just hang on. Try not to get frustrated,” is the advice offered in a telephone interview with Howard Cosgrove, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Unemployment statistics that the government will release Jan. 9 are expected to show that 500,000 more people lost their jobs in December, which could push the official national jobless rate over 7 percent. November’s 6.7 percent figure was already the highest in 15 years.

For people in the rapidly growing ranks of the unemployed the crashing of the systems turns what is already a harrowing experience into a certified nightmare.

Tom McAvey, 54, was laid off Jan. 2 from the custodial staff in a Brooklyn, N.Y., elementary school. “I waited until Monday to file my claim,” he told the World. “Two of us at the school were laid off. We had no idea it was coming. What a way to start the new Yyar. I’m two week’s salary away from the poorhouse. My wife lost her job at Bear Stearns and is still out. I don’t know how I’m going to pay the bills. One of my daughters is in a Catholic high school – there’s the tuition.”

McAvey has difficulty mustering any sympathy for state officials who say the systems crash because of the unprecedented number of jobless applicants.

“I don’t buy it. The government has computers that handle much more information like the ones that keep track of all the taxes they are owed. If they weren’t laying off their own workers they could maintain better systems and plan for these emergencies. Layoffs and budget cuts are to blame – it’s not the fault of the unemployed.”

An unemployed worker in Rhode Island emphasized how, even before the crashes, filing for benefits in her state constituted a virtual nightmare. Her state, along with Michigan, tops the nation with the highest unemployment rates.

“They have eliminated the old unemployment offices,’ she said. ‘They have laid off state employees. You can’t go anywhere to talk to a person. If I was lucky I got a recording that told me to call back later. This went on for days.”

The woman described for the World how she had to research the location of an actual office where she could find a live person. “But even there, I was told to fill out a form with a message and that in a few days someone would call me back. I was lucky to be home at the time they did call back. They were helpful – it was a worker trying to do a good job, but there just aren’t enough of them.

“Between the trips back and forth, the 75-minute waits on hold – once, out of desperation I held on for two hours – it’s a struggle. It’s a lot of time lost that could be spent on the Internet or going out to look for a job,” she said.