More than 1 million New Jersey workers filed for unemployment insurance over the course of two months since the state ordered business closures and a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Put into perspective: That's more than double all the claims workers in the state submitted during the whole of 2019, which was 492,000 applications.
Between April 26 and May 2, another 88,326workers submitted unemployment claims for the first time, seeking public help covering lost or reduced wages as businesses closed their doors or reduced staff and services, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.
That number of applications is much lower than the peak of claims during the crisis, close to 215,000 at the end of March. But it's still significantly higher than what workers usually file during that week in past years, around 7,000 to 12,000 claims.
Employees across the country are feeling similar strains. Nationwide, more than 3.2 million workers filed for unemployment last week, and more than 33 million across the country submitted claims since mid-March.
More than 642,000 New Jersey workers have received $1.9 billion in benefits since mid-March.
However, New Jersey workers are still facing problems with the process, as many people are filing for the first time or reopening old claims in a system that is not self-explanatory. The website has crashed and phone lines are often jammed. The state Department of Labor scrambled to assemble more workers to help people with questions and updated its website to allow more steps to be done online, rather than over the phone.
“We are doing everything we can to put the best, most useful information out there and urge everyone to read it before they certify,” said Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo. “This is the process we are required to follow to protect claimants, protect our trust fund’s solvency and protect New Jersey businesses. It’s heartbreaking to hear stories of a single mom or a furloughed dad whose family sustaining payments were held up. It’s even worse when tens of thousands have it held up because of an avoidable, unintentional certification mistake. ”
Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that Asaro-Angelo is planned to be at the daily coronavirus briefing Thursday at 1 p.m. to address issues filers may be having, and explain why applicants may not yet be receiving an extra $600 check each week from the federal stimulus CARES Act.
New Jersey began doling out these supplemental payment starting on April 14, and new filers can see these payments retroactive to the week of March 29, the agency said.
The federal CARES Act also expanded benefits for additional 13 weeks, that will also be available for those who already exhausted past benefits starting May 18. The state labor department posted a guide online that explains what to do in different scenarios, and whether an applicant needs to file a new claim, open an existing one, or wait for agency instructions.
For those already receiving benefits, the extra 13 weeks of payments will automatically be available.
New Jersey also began processing claims last week for people who were formerly ineligible for benefits, such as independent contractors, gig economy workers and self-employed individuals. The state processed an additional 72,000 claims for this federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and Murphy said he hopes to finish processing all such claims this week.
Visit nj.gov/labor and read the appropriate guides before you file, the labor department says, because a mistake can set back an application. However, claims will be backdated to the day you are first eligible, so you will not lose out on benefits, Murphy said.
Some users may not be correctly answering the seven questions required to claim benefits each week, resulting in a "claim not payable at this time" error message. Follow this new Labor Department guide to understand the appropriate answers for your situation.
Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, called on the state Department of Labor to draw $50 million from $1.8 billion available in federal funds to make information technology upgrades and hire temporary workers to help process claims.
“While no one could have predicted the consequences of this pandemic, the current unemployment system is woefully outdated, and the New Jersey Department of Labor staff is simply not plentiful enough to address the full scale of this crisis due to years of reductions in manpower," Singleton said.
For those looking for unemployment, visit jobs.covid19.nj.gov/ to visit a state job portal that has close to 60,000 job postings from more than 800 essential businesses that are still open.