No joy this season for N.J. workers still waiting for unemployment benefits
Protesters urging official to fix what they called a broken unemployment system on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Lois Hart fears this will be the second Christmas in a row she will disappoint her eight grandchildren.
For nearly two years, the Wildwood Crest resident has struggled to receive unemployment benefits she applied for, first in September 2020 and then again two months ago. A seasonal motel worker, she said her most recent claim has been deemed expired, and she is still owed money from earlier in the year.
In all, she estimates she’s missing more than $8,000.
“I’m just sad. How do I look at these kids for the second year in a row and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’?” said Hart. “I’m just trying not to think about it. I’m trying to figure out what my excuses will be this year. I guess that’s the frustration.”
Hart is just one of thousands of New Jersyans waiting for their unemployment issues to be resolved, nearly two years into a pandemic that left countless unemployed. While the Department of Labor would not say how many have escalated claims or are missing payments, lawmakers say they’re still helping constituents, and Facebook groups dedicated to unemployment claimants are filled with desperate pleas for help as Christmas arrives.
“People are calling my offices, every day still,” said state Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic), a vocal critic of the Murphy administration’s handling of unemployment claims. “It’s really disappointing the Labor Department can’t get it together.”
New Jersey defends its handling of unemployment matters. In roughly 22 months, the Labor Department has paid $36 billion to about 1.5 million claimants, said spokeswoman Angela Delli-Santi. Although the state relied on archaic systems and complex, outdated benefit requirements, the technology “performed remarkably well,” she said.
“Obviously, we feel for any person who is struggling at any time of year. We are, after all, public servants. We are still working day after day to resolve any outstanding claims, or to help claimants understand why they are not eligible for additional benefits,” Delli-Santi added.
New Jersey will be one of two states working with the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Digital Service agency to modernize its computer systems. Delli-Santi added that while many people believe computer glitches are to blame for the delays, the culprit is actually the complicated and constantly changing requirements to qualify for unemployment.
I'm extremely agitated because New Jersey has one of the highest tax rates, and I just feel like overall, it's a democratic state that kind of toots that they're progressive and assisting their constituents, but the reality is, it's terrible.
– Jen Chang, Jersey City resident waiting to open an unemployment claim since September
Delli-Santi also said about 20% of people who file claims are not eligible for benefits.
“There are myriad reasons why someone could be waiting for benefits: they did not complete the required identity verification through ID.me, their claim is being disputed by their employer, we are waiting for wage verification from another state, they did not complete the application correctly, their claim is in adjudication, or is being appealed, and many more,” she said.
Ashley Lavelle doesn’t know why her claim is still being held up. She was laid off from her job in dining services at Rutgers University in June 2020, and received all payments until April 20, 2021. She estimates she’s owed $14,000 from April to August, which is when she went back to work.
She said she’s had to take out loans and rack up credit card debt to get by.
“Getting my unemployment is the only way for me to catch up,” she said. “I was surprised about it at first, but now I’m not because I’ve heard from so many people that the same thing has happened. So I don’t know if I even expect it anymore.”
She has no idea why her payments suddenly stopped, she said, but believes it might line up with running out of her 26 weeks of state benefits and being moved to the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
Lavelle said she has called unemployment call centers daily searching for answers — and her money. She said she rarely got through, and if she did, she’d leave her phone number for a call back within 24 hours, but never received one. Sometimes, she’d be on hold for 30 minutes before the system hung up, she said.
Hart, too, said she called hundreds of times, receiving help only when lawmakers interceded. The difficulty getting a person on the phone to handle unemployment claims has been a common complaint, but the state insists the system works as intended.
Delli-Santi maintained there “are no long wait times,” adding call centers are staffed seven days a week and provide a same-day callback option.
That has Jen Chang wondering why no one has answered the hundreds of calls she said she’s made since September, when she first tried to open an unemployment claim but found an account already existed in her name.
The Jersey City resident said she calls every day at all hours, but is greeted with the same automated response that the office is busy and overwhelmed, ordering her to try again the next day. She’s written letters to the governor, her mayor, and senators, and even reached out to a lawyer.
“I’ve never gotten a response from anyone. I’m extremely agitated because New Jersey has one of the highest tax rates, and I just feel like overall, it’s a Democratic state that kind of toots that they’re progressive and assisting their constituents, but the reality is, it’s terrible. And I think someone who doesn’t have the tenacity to maneuver the system would be really in despair,” said Chang.
As the daughter of immigrants and first college graduate in the family, she’s usually the one helping fill out government forms. She said she can’t imagine how some of her family members would be able to file jobless claims, let alone fight with government agencies.
“I’m at the point where I’m contemplating selling my apartment,” Chang said, the defeat clear in her voice. “I’m lucky I don’t have children, but instead of a 30-year mortgage, I did a 15-year, and it’s quite taxing when you have no income.
Whenever she’s not calling the Department of Labor, she’s applying to jobs, she said. But she’s underselling herself because she’s in such desperate need of money, pointing to the rising cost of everything from food to gas to utility bills. And as much as she doesn’t want to give up on ever getting her claim open, she said she’s running out of hope.
“I’ve tried so many different avenues to reach them, and they just don’t respond. They only communicate with you when they want to communicate, but this makes me think they don’t want to fix the system,” she said.
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