A record 206,253 people filed unemployment claims last week in New Jersey as coronavirus kept more workers off the job. The stunning number is even higher than the week before when 155,815 people filed.
In the past two weeks, more than 362,000 workers filed for benefits.
Across the country, nearly 10 million people have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks, roughly double the week before.
The numbers are astounding. But it’s not just numbers.
It’s real people. Real people who are afraid they won’t be able to pay their bills. Who are struggling to find enough income to help them take care of their families during this unprecedented shutdown.
New Jerseyans have questions.
What if I can’t get through? Will gig workers get unemployment? How long will benefits last? Can the system handle this huge surge? Will the money run out?
NJ Advance Media took those questions directly to N.J. Labor Department Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo in an exclusive 35-minute telephone interview.
Q: Those were some astounding numbers this morning. What’s your take?
A: Yes, they are astounding and clearly we don’t want anyone having to file.
I’m proud of the fact the system is working and having that many people being able to claim. The fact is we in New Jersey have the most of any state with 53 percent of workers eligible for benefits. People have paid into the system, their employers have paid in, and it’s there for this precise moment when there is an emergency in their lives.
Q: Do you think the numbers will keep going higher?
A: Yes, there’s no reason to see why they would be going down. Hopefully, they’re not going to be exponentially higher. I expect we will have an increase every week going forward.
Q: We have heard complaints from readers who had had trouble getting through. One reader said the representative she spoke to said only 20 people were processing claims. How many are processing claims and how many are answering the phones?
A: Maybe that was at that particular call center at that particular time.
We have three call centers and we need to take mitigation efforts for our own staff to make sure they’re properly socially distancing and we’re getting them outfitted with laptops to work from home.
It’s still not enough.
Q: If someone has trouble getting through to unemployment, what should they do?
A: Most of the calls that we are getting are folks that have filed online and didn’t understand the answer they received or they had further questions about their claim.
My message is that we’re empathetic and we are sorry it’s taking as long as it’s taking to get through on the phone. Our goal is to get more information on the website and be more communicative with email for people who are filing claims and what the next steps are.
Most claims are going through. We have more claims than we’ve ever had before. Some of them are not perfect, so we have teams and teams of workers going through them and processing them properly.
A huge majority of claims are being approved. It just takes some time for them to get through the backlog.
What we’re seeing from the calls... by the time someone asks about their claim they have already been processed. It’s the initial anxiety, especially with so many people filing for the first time in their lives.
Q: What’s being done for low-income workers so they’re not left behind? They can’t go to an office for help and not everyone has access to the internet, especially with libraries being closed.
A: That’s one that we think about every day. It was something we had to consider before we closed the offices. Ninety percent of our filings in the past two week are online, so when you take that number, that means 10% were over the phone. That’s still a humongous number of people who are getting through.
We’ve been doing extensive outreach to community groups before this, getting out into the community to talk about paid sick leave, expanded family leave. We’re always worried about who doesn’t know about these benefits. To have third party NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working on our behalf has been especially important during these times.
We’re also getting a lot of inquiries through legislative offices. We work with them as they help constituents.
Q: What are the wait times for claims?
A: Let’s say I filed today and everything was perfect. I had a long-term employer and my wages were perfectly recorded and I was eligible across the board and my claim went through without agent intervention? I would be collecting next week on Wednesday.
Q: Are there any fears that low-paid workers will opt for unemployment because the higher $600 benefit gives them more than their regular paycheck?
A: It’s not a fear that I have. It’s my experience working in this job and from my time at the U.S. Department of Labor that the majority of people want to work. They want to have the dignity of work, to get something done at the end of the day and to support their family.
I haven’t seen people looking for free money.
Even with the extension, there is an end date. I’d say most people would rather be with an employer who is supporting them and employing them rather than go on unemployment and then not know what’s going to happen when it runs out.
Q: Can you describe how the expanded $600 weekly payment will work?
A: Anybody who is eligible for unemployment insurance will automatically get that $600. The bill was passed Friday night. Saturday we had a scramble to sign an agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Anyone who is eligible for a claim this week, going forward to July 31, will get the additional $600 per week no matter what their level of earnings are. Whether it’s $200 or the maximum of $713 per week, they will get the additional $600.
Q: What about the self-employed and gig workers?
A: One, in New Jersey, we have the broadest view of who is an employee versus who is an independent contractor. Clearly we feel a lot of people who are independent contractors should be classified as employees so they would be eligible even before the federal expansion.
But it’s very fact specific.
That’s why it’s very hard and unemployment in general is confusing. It’s hard to answer questions that are specific. Someone will ask on my social media, “What does this mean for my claim?” But it’s very fact specific.
For the expansion, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance which means benefits for the self-employed and independent contractors — while we’re still waiting for guidance on eligibility requirements from the federal government, the first steps will always be the same.
The first step is they have to be denied for unemployment first. The law clearly says this is for individuals who would otherwise have been ineligible. No matter what, the first step is doing to be to go through the denial process.
Q: Would they then appeal?
A: No, it wouldn’t be an appeal. This is the part we’re waiting for from the federal government. When we were speaking to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, I asked specifically about Disaster Unemployment Assistance and if we can just break out the old programming and they said no, much to my chagrin.
One, we are a federally-administered system so we need to know what we have to do to give out that assistance. Two, if we give out money improperly, then people would have to give that money back.
Q: So should gig workers and self-employed people apply and wait?
A: Yep, for now. Hopefully we will have better guidance when the DOL gets back to us. People have asked why we aren’t giving answers like New York but they are telling people the same thing: apply and get denied.
Q: We’ve had questions from people who were on unemployment before the coronavirus, or whose benefits are about to run out. How will it work for them?
A: For those who have a claim that is ending in two weeks, our goal is to automatically extend them.
Then our goal is to be able to go back and notify people who have exhausted benefits of their new rights, but we can’t do that yet. If i received my last check last week, for now, unfortunately, yes, we are in a waiting period.
The expectation is that they can get the extra 13 weeks
Q: What are you doing to improve the system?
A: We’re working hard as heck to get more tech improvement, human improvement, getting people on the phones.
People say, “Just expand the phone lines, hire more people.” That sounds like an easy thing to do. But it’s not like we doubled or tripled our demand. We had like a 1,600% increase.
We’re really trying to retrain other staff to be the triage, for folks to answer basic questions about the program and then at that point filter them to the experienced Unemployment Insurance call center staff for the questions only they can deal with
We’re trying to bring in staff from other divisions and give them a boot camp to get more bodies on the phone.
I’m a big Rutgers basketball fan. Imagine trying to fit 2 million people into a 9,000 seat stadium. For unemployment, every case is specific and you can’t be generic. Every single one of those 2 million people need to have a seat in the stadium for some period of time.
Q: What would you say to President Trump? What help do you need?
A: I would say to do whatever we can to make these benefits as flexible and easily applicable as possible, and also let them know the states can’t move forward without proper guidance from the U.S. Dept. of Labor.
That is not a negative against the Dept. of Labor. The bill was just passed and signed on Friday.
I think there’s a misconception out there that the bill was signed so people should get these benefits right away. But we need the guidance.
We fully intend for people to get the $600 benefit next week.
For self-employed and contract workers, that’s a different animal and we need the guidance.
Adding on $600 to those already eligible is easier.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Nothing upsets you more than people being anxious about their financial security. We are doing everything we can to build capacity as fast as possible, and I know full well that doesn’t help anybody who needs that money in their pocket right now.