NJ gets an avalanche of jobless claims

Kimberly Cornwell has applied for jobless benefits every week since her employer, Tré Chic Salon & Day Spa down the shore followed state coronavirus guidelines and shut its doors March 19.

“It tells me my funds are not payable at this time,” she said. “But it shows me how much money I have in my unemployment account, but I can’t get to it.”

Cornwell says she received some federal stimulus money, but it pales in comparison to losing six weeks — and counting — of pay.

“I live paycheck to paycheck. It’s very stressful getting foreclosure notices in the mail, and things getting shutoff and stuff like that. Bills aren’t getting paid,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell has called the state Department of Labor repeatedly, but she’s competing with an avalanche of out-of-work New Jerseyans — 930,000 who’ve applied for benefits. That great lockdown number is approaching the height of the great recession.

“We were blindsided. It was like a tsunami,” said unemployment insurance clerk for the Department of Labor, Lydia Diaz.

Diaz works in Freehold, one of the state’s three Department of Labor call centers, where she says the last administration cut the staff in half from 80-plus workers down to somewhere in the 40s. Diaz says the budget cuts, combined with soaring pandemic job-loss applications, overwhelmed the department’s software and have led to major processing issues and delays.

“It went from ‘we’re going to have an issue.’ Now, within a week or two, to ‘we have a big issue.’ It’s a massive issue,” she said.

Diaz, a 20-year veteran of the Labor department, hears the heartbreaking hardships of job loss and uncertainty — including that of Cornwells, who she now plans to help.

“I can’t sleep at night. I really can’t. It’s very stressful to think that someone out there thinks that they’re alone and we’re not there for them,” Diaz said. “But we’re there. I think about the claimants, and those that need our services all the time. I wish that I could work 24 hours to get everything done for them so that they could get that pressure lifted off their shoulder, that they’re going to be OK.”

Diaz says she’s able to arrange payouts right away, within an hour, for some applicants who have direct deposit from a previous claim. At Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, the governor gave details about the overall payouts.

“Over the past two weeks, the department has added 193,000 to the roles of unemployed workers receiving benefits for a total of 622,000 people now receiving unemployment benefits from our state. Another half a billion dollars in payments went out the door last week for a total of $1.4 billion and rising,” said Gov. Phil Murphy.

That excludes Kimberly Cornwell. She’s ready to go back to work, and in the meantime wants something out of the unemployment insurance system she paid into.

“I think it’s horrible. It’s pathetic. Especially in New Jersey,” she said.