Thousands of New Jersey workers have waited months for unemployment help, with no answer
Judy Lagos repeatedly calls and emails the New Jersey unemployment office, media outlets, state lawmakers and even Gov. Phil Murphy, but no one has been able to help: The 48-year-old has not received a penny of unemployment insurance since she filed March 22, and she is exhausting her savings.
In early March, Lagos’ doctor told her that her asthma put her at high risk for contracting COVID-19, so she should stay home in Old Bridge from her job at East Brunswick Open Upright, an MRI center. A few days later, she lost her sense of smell and taste. She couldn’t breathe and started having the chills and a cough. Then her office closed.
Four months later, Lagos said she hasn't received one check from the unemployment office, or spoken to any labor department official to give her guidance, a problem many New Jersey workers face.
The Labor Department says it has distributed at least one payment to 96% of 1.2 million eligible claimants since mid-March, or about $11.6 billion. But following that math, there are still some 48,000 people waiting for help, that labor officials say have very specialized cases that need more time. To help clear the backlog, the Labor Department has trained more employees to handle claims, set up a new call center, and automated certain processes that would have required a caller to talk to an overwhelmed employee, agency officials said.
“The unemployment rolls are changing constantly; we are focused on getting people paid as quickly as possible, but we must abide by federal unemployment law, and comply with anti-fraud laws, while doing so,” said Labor Department spokesperson Angela Delli Santi. “We feel for each and every claimant who has had to wait for benefits. We are working night and day to get their claims resolved.”
The Labor Department was not prepared for the unprecedented flood of claims, and despite being warned multiple times by lawmakers and audits about the agency's dated systems, it had yet to modernize the technology. Its staff has been gutted since the Great Recession. Complicating things further, the agency had to figure out a system to handle the expanded federal benefits that cover those who previously wouldn't have qualified.
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The USA TODAY Network New Jersey receives new emails each day from readers seeking help to get checks from the insurance fund they paid into for years. They say while they have overwhelmingly supported Murphy’s decisions to stem the spread of the virus, his administration is running out of excuses as to why all claimants have not been helped four months after unemployment applications began to spike.
Many readers just want to talk to a live claims agent who can help, but instead spend hours on hold. And the labor commissioner’s rhetoric places the blame on applicants, not the government whose job it is to address these issues, they say.
“I only go out unless it’s 100% necessary because of my asthma, and because I have no money for gas, to pay my bills,” Lagos said. “I keep getting threatened by JCP&L that they’ll shut off my lights. I now have a tax lien on my house. How much longer can this go on?”
Lagos' COVID-19 test came back positive, keeping her at home until she felt better and finished nursing family members back to health, she said. Then her office closed due to coronavirus restrictions. Lagos is still unable to breathe as easily as she could before contracting COVID-19, and has since had to have emergency gallbladder surgery in early July. Her husband's paycheck from working at a grocery store is not enough for their family to live off of.
Lagos was not able to certify for her weekly benefits for more than two months. Then, the website said she had a zero balance and the claim was not payable. Each time she tried, she said the system told her she had to speak to an agent. Labor officials eventually told her she would have an interview on July 9, but she did not hear from anyone at the department. The offices of Assemblymen Rob Clifton, R-Monmouth, and Ron Dancer, R-Ocean, returned her emails and tried reaching out to the Labor Department, but they haven't had any luck either.
“I have my phone literally on my hip all day and it just hurts when you see the state paid out $10.9 billion, but what about people like me?” Lagos said. “I’m basically losing everything, what do I do, go and sue the state? That’s ridiculous. I have only been able to survive this whole ordeal through my faith in God."
Gail Van Treuren
Gail Van Treuren, 52, of Pompton Plains, began staying home from her job at a drive-thru convenience store in Pequannock after she had a fever and tested positive for COVID-19.
While her teenage son received his unemployment checks after he was furloughed from his job at the Cedar Crest Senior Living Community, Van Treuren has not received any benefits since filing on May 28. She calls the Labor Department line 18-20 times a day, but all she gets is a busy signal. Her online status recently changed to "filed," but came along with a message to expect to wait another four weeks.
“We’re a paycheck to paycheck family, so if my son wasn’t getting unemployment, and I couldn’t borrow money from him, it would cause us so much more stress,” Van Treuren said. “I’m still suffering from multiple effects of the virus...and I’m now racking up specialists. Needless to say, these appointments come with co-pays. The stress and aggravation of checking my claim status multiple times per day certainly isn’t helping any.”
Nijee Marshall, 24, stopped receiving his unemployment benefits at the end of April, despite the Labor website saying he still has funds available after he was honorably discharged from the Air Force in December 2019.
Marshall would start calling the agency phone number at 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m. to try to be the first caller, but has not been able to reach anyone to help him.
After living at the McGuire Air Force Base for five years, he moved back to North Carolina to be with his family during the pandemic. His family has been getting by with money from his previous unemployment checks and food stamps, and his older brother got a job working at McDonalds.
“I’m blessed, but at the same time, I earned this money, and the people in power are not answering their phones,” Marshall said. “This is their job. In these types of situations, I feel like they should do more.”
Walter Bond of Jersey City used up his benefits before the pandemic hit, but received a letter that he was eligible for the 13-week extension and could file in June. When he tried to file, he would get a screen that said “Your certification cannot be processed” and he had to call to speak to an agent.
But he could never reach a live person. Bond, a banking consultant, would call every day, sometimes waiting for two hours before the system disconnected him. His wife, who was furloughed from the bank where she worked, received a couple of weeks of benefits and then they abruptly stopped.
“We had a little rainy day fund which is now exhausted, which forced us to compromise our retirement fund,” Bond said. “I was understanding that the system was overwhelmed the first month or so, but we’re getting close to four months in and this is still not fixed. The Labor Department should not keep deflecting blame.”
Ben Cabrera, 58, of Bergenfield, received two confirmation notes in the mail and online that his claim was approved and payments would start May 2. But he has not received a single payment, and when he checks the status of his submission, he sees the message “There is no record of your submission.”
“It’s interesting that I’m getting two different messages, which makes me think the data must be sitting on another database, which is unforgivable that they haven’t integrated this late in the game,” said the former technology executive. “I gave them the benefit of the doubt into June, but they’ve had four months to get their act together.”
Cabrera said he was reluctant to apply at first because he considers himself very independent, but he has an adult son with a disability who lives at home, a growing list of expenses, and he doesn’t want to draw out his retirement accounts.
“But then I realized I have paid into a system for many, many years to be able to help me when I’m in a situation like this,” Cabrera said. “At least that’s what it is intended to do.”
Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s legislature and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.