BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Day-care worker Debra Tryanowski and car mechanic Anthony Colucci are just two of the 300,000 New Jerseyans waiting since early April to get their unemployment benefits after being laid off due to COVID-19.
Tryanowski has been trying to get benefits since she was laid off by a Montclair day-care center. Trying to navigate the system to check on her claim, filed more than four weeks ago, has been hard, she said. Getting through to a real person has been even harder.
Colucci applied for benefits on April 4, after he was laid off from his job as a mechanic with a Chevrolet dealership. But he too has yet to get the reason behind the delay over his application.
More than one million New Jerseyans have filed for unemployment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, and of those, 700,000 have received payments, Rob Asaro-Angelo, commissioner of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said last week.
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The department has fallen under harsh criticism from the 300,000 residents still waiting for benefits to reach their bank accounts.
At a May 7 briefing with Gov. Phil Murphy, Asaro-Angelo defended his department, pointing to the surge in the number of claims after Superstorm Sandy, when they topped 154,000 in total.
“We are seeing 155,000 applications a week with COVID. We saw 45,000 a week with Sandy,” Asaro-Angelo said.
To date, New Jerseyans have received $1.9 billion in benefits.
Asaro-Angelo said that of the 300,000 applicants still waiting, 150,000 came in over the last week, and the others could be experiencing complications because the applicants are not certifying the application, or are not answering the certification questions correctly.
Missing information, opening claims in multiple states, and Social Security or bank account numbers being punched in incorrectly have also caused delays. And some employers are contesting some of the applications, he said.
“In a week, we had more than 4,000 claims that had the wrong direct-deposit information,” Asaro-Angelo said.
Whereas Tryanowski’s husband is still working and pulling in money for the family, Colucci is his family’s breadwinner.
Colucci is not a novice at working through the unemployment system; he applied in 2018 with no problems. He has received a confirmation number, but he’s hitting a wall when he attempts to check his status or claim benefits at a scheduled time set up by the department. “It either says ‘No claim filed,’ ‘The 2018 benefit year has expired,’ or ‘Claim pending,’” he said.
Asaro-Angelo contends that most of the claims do go through, with claimants receiving benefits within two to three weeks.
Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill said her office has received hundreds of calls from residents in her district who are experiencing difficulties with state unemployment claims. She has hosted town hall-style call-ins with Asaro-Angelo, and dozens of residents have phoned in with questions.
“My office is also on the phone every day with the governor’s office and has brought up specific concerns we are hearing from residents about the state’s unemployment claim system. But the reality is that there is still a backlog,” Sherrill said.
Last Friday, the state Labor Department launched a chatbot, which applicants can use to get questions quickly answered.
But Tryanowski and Colucci both described the chatbot as useless, as they received automated responses with links to different pages on the website they had already visited many times.
Residents receiving benefits are required to fill out a questionnaire each week to certify their receipt of benefits. Asaro-Angelo said this too has been problematic, with participants answering the questions incorrectly. For instance, he said, claimants expecting to be called back to work following the shutdown and those who were furloughed are to answer “yes” to the question “Are you actively seeking work?”
“If any of the questions are answered wrong there will be a delay in receiving benefits,” he said.
In an attempt to aid in answering the certification questionnaire correctly and avoid delays, last Friday the website launched a step-by-step guide on filling out the questionnaire. Part of the certification process will now require the applicant to sign off that they have read it.
The certification process is the biggest issue reported to Sherrill by her constituents, she said. “If there is an issue with the certification, DOL is unable to process the claim. One of the biggest pieces of advice we have for residents is to review the DOL information guide closely before filling the certification out,” Sherrill said.
The department added Saturday to schedule additional certification times for applicants, as well.
Colucci contends he filled out the certification correctly, but without being able to speak with a live person, he says he doesn’t know what the holdup is. It could be the system is crossing his previous claim in 2018 with his new one, he said.
In Tryanowski’s case, she is still working a part-time job as a Sunday school teacher, and she thinks that may be confusing the system.
To be able to increase call volume, Asaro-Angelo said, the call center and processing department will see an increase of 150 new employees, with more being called out of retirement.
He described a dedicated department of employees who are “working day and night” to get the claims processed. One department employee told him that her hands are cramped and her legs are swollen by the end of the workday, but says it’s worth it.
“On more than one occasion she has cried with an applicant over the phone when their application finally goes through,” Asaro-Angelo said.
But for Colucci — who has tried calling, only to be told all lines are full and to call back the next day, and who has sent four emails with no response — trying to keep food on the table and paying the rent when his credit cards are now maxed out, it’s been frustrating.
“This is so frustrating, and when I need help at the worst time, this state failed me,” he said.
Sherrill said the backlog is a major concern of hers.
“I know how critical it is that they have access to this assistance at such an unprecedented time. I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to help,” she said.
She encourages residents experiencing difficulties to reach out to her office at 202-225-5034 or by emailing her at https://sherrill.house.gov/contact/email-me.