OCEAN COUNTY, NJ – The side effects of COVID-19 extend beyond any physical illness. Since Governor Phil Murphy shut down the state to all non-essential businesses, more than a million workers filed for state unemployment. Meanwhile, Senator Christopher Connors, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove, want something done. Many local residents are still waiting for their first unemployment check.
“Our office has received more than a thousand calls from people who are out of work and need their benefits,” shared Connors. “We should be able to cross-train other state workers to get the claims processed.”
Last month, Murphy announced the plan to initiate robust contract tracing in “restoring economic health through public health.” When positive COVID-19 test come back, individuals would be asked to help stop the further spread of the virus by identifying their contacts.
“According to national guidance, a proper program will require anywhere from 15 to 81 persons engaged in contact tracing for every 100,000 residents,” Murphy said. “For New Jersey, this can mean the need for anywhere between roughly 1,300 to more than 7,000 people to take on this work.”
Connors, Rumpf, and Gove criticized Murphy’s intention to deploy what equates to an “army” of contract tracers when the Department of Labor continues to struggle with manpower issues.
“Our constituents have gone for weeks without having their claims processed through no fault of their own,” the state legislators shared. “These people just want to put food on their tables for their family and to stop wearing out their already maxed-out credit cards.”
According to Connors, the district office has tried to intervene on behalf of constituents. The unemployment website is often down. Attempts to intervene on behalf of constituents result in the same frustrations experienced by those waiting for their claims to be processed.
“In addition to gearing up to hire an “army” of contract tracers, the state’s overriding propriety should be ensuring that residents who’ve lost their livelihoods during a pandemic can stand in line at the local grocery store as opposed to the local food bank,” implored the 9th District delegation.
Murphy has indicated that a great many of the delayed claims for unemployment are for self-employed and independent contractors. As of today, the Department of Labor says it has distributed $1.9 billion in benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March.
New Jersey Labor Department Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said that half of the claims submitted to his department are processed “right away” and paid in two to three weeks.
Key reasons certain claims his department does not process certain claims, Asaro-Angelo said, is missing information on applications, wages being claimed in multiple states, the employer contesting the reason for separation and incorrect social security information.
The largest reason claims are rejected or delayed, he said, is people incorrectly answering questions for weekly certifications of benefits.
“A worker who expects to be recalled to his (or her) job should none the less answer ‘yes’ you are seeking work,” Asaro-Angelo said.
He directed workers to New Jersey’s unemployment website, unemployment.nj.gov, on which, Asaro-Angelo said, the department intends to add a “chat bot” to help users find the information they are looking for.
“We’re doing everything in our power to get everyone the income they are entitled to,” Asaro-Angelo said. “As I’ve mentioned, these are astronomical numbers.”
While the April’s detailed unemployment figures were not set to be released until Friday, a ranking from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics for March put New Jersey’s unemployment at 25th best in the nation.
In a statement Thursday, other Republicans in the state Senate disputed Murphy's portrayal of the unemployment system.
“Governor Murphy has said repeatedly that the Department of Labor is quickly plowing through a backlog of unemployment claims,” said Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Totowa. “But that’s not what we’re hearing from constituents who have gone weeks without a response since they started the process of filing for benefits.”
The discussion of unemployment comes amid increasing calls for the governor to detail more specifically timelines for reopening the state’s businesses.
“I listen intensely to the governor’s daily press events,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, R-Westfield, in a statement Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the repetitive nature does not detail how we open our small businesses or the address the details on how to begin a return to normalcy.”
On Thursday, Murphy described what he anticipates will be a gradual reopening of the state, comparing it to a using a light switch with a dimmer function.
State officials, he said, are looking at reopening nonessential retail businesses and reopening centers that provide elective surgeries. As previously has been the case, however, Murphy had no specific timeline for reopening those.
While not commenting on the health crisis, Connors also questioned the New Jersey governor’s orders on the closure of non-essential retail businesses and construction projects.
Stores like Target and Walmart remain open because they carry the groceries. Shoppers are not prohibited from buying clothing or recreational items.
“I can buy a bicycle in one of these stores, said Connors. “However, small bike shops can’t open according to the Executive Order.”
In the last few weeks, road crews are working on the Garden State Parkway and exercising social distancing. According to Connors, building contractors should be afforded the same opportunity.
“Economic stability represents the wellbeing of our nation,” Connors stressed. “We cannot allow our economy to fail and risk the crippling of our security.”