NJ unemployment claims top 1M, but 305K still unpaid

Robin Hudy is a dental assistant in Toms River who filed for unemployment March 20 — around the time when New Jersey locked down over COVID-19 concerns.

She says the state Department of Labor emailed her in mid-April stating that her claim had been processed but she’s still waiting for an unemployment check. She wants answers.

“I’m coming up on the ninth week of literally not a dime from unemployment. Literally not a dime,” she said. “I was calling and calling and calling again. You cannot get through to a human being. It is impossible.”

Hundreds of thousands share Hudy’s frustration. The state Labor Department on Thursday announced more than 1 million residents have filed for unemployment over seven weeks of lockdown.

New Jersey’s processed 714,000 claims — including both state and federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — but another 305,000 remain unpaid. With 91% of claims filed online, the department’s fumbling and hamstrung by an antiquated computer system that frequently crashes.

At Thursday’s daily press briefing with Gov. Phil Murphy, Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said the program’s been rewritten.

“That has enabled 60% of claims, that were being kicked back for an agent to review, to be pushed through instead,” he said. “This improvement alone has moved forward roughly 270,000 of the claims that had hit a snag.”

“We know that for many of you this has been a frustrating and challenging process, and while we know great strides have been made in chopping through the tremendous backlog of claims, thats no comfort if your claim is one of the ones still yet to be processed. We have heard you loud and clear on this,” Murphy said.

Asaro-Angelo stated that his department is hiring hundreds of new staffers. He also said the backlog of payments to gig workers and self-employed claimants will get caught up by next week.

But he also suggested that tens of thousands of payments got held up because people made “unintentional certification mistakes” on application forms.

“Answering the certifying question incorrectly will delay payment of benefits. We don’t want that and you don’t want that,” he said. “Thousands of workers in our department have not stopped working to get you the help that you deserve.”

Bergen Assemblyman Kevin Rooney’s calling for the labor commissioner to resign if he can’t fix the unemployment backlog.

“We need to fix the system. If we’re not going to get folks the desperately-needed funds — to survive, to put food on their table, to make sure that there’s milk in the bottles for their babies — then we need to start opening up the state. And it’s come to that point. I’ve been patient long enough, but two months is unacceptable,” Rooney said.

One economist that’s concerned for New Jersey’s workforce says the state should outsource or possibly privatize its unemployment claims process.

“There needs to be a hard look at which departments should be privatized. I’m not saying for a profit motive, but some departments just are not efficient,” David Fiorenza said. “If I ran a business like this, I would not be in business.”

Meanwhile, Hudy’s trying to be patient.

“I understand there’s new people everyday filing, which is awful. I have empathy and sympathy for everyone going though this. It’s horrible. People have lost people to COVID-19 — it’s horrible. But we are the workers of New Jersey. We keep New Jersey running,” she said.

She says all they’re asking for is the money they need to survive.