HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Nearing the end of the April 21 County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ meeting, Freeholder Zach Rich made sure to gain board support for a new initiative that will hopefully result in expedited and more efficient systems and processing of the skyrocketing number of unemployment claims by New Jersey residents.
Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren expressed the need to prioritize helping people in Hunterdon County and statewide who are navigating through murky waters and setbacks in collecting benefits.
“I have corresponded with residents, and I recognize the struggles people are going through, trying to just get someone on the phone and get their application accepted,” he said. “Our legislators are participating each Wednesday on my mayors’ conference calls. We will direct letters to all of them and also to Gov. (Phil) Murphy to reiterate our concerns. Unfortunately we’re dealing with antiquated state computer systems that won’t help anybody.”
Rich took his seat for his first term on the board this January, succeeding former director Suzanne Lagay. This week he sparked the rallying cry.
“Something’s gotta give and please, we have got to do better,” he said. “We can’t continue operating in this manner. People are looking for a response from the DOL (Department of Labor) and we need them to figure the processing out. Here in Flemington, I spoke with a local firefighter, Hunterdon Central Regional High School graduate Evan Fimiani, who is now at over 35 days of awaiting unemployment benefits while being on-call to run into burning buildings and into emergency response action for us. We have got to figure situations like his out. If we have to ask the state to throw more resources at this, then that’s what we have to do."
On April 23, the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development touted a 560 percent increase in its weekly distribution of payments with 556,000 state residents paid.
The Labor Department tweeted, “NJDOL has distributed $1 billion in unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March. Flooded with applications like other states, NJDOL is working hard to implement the processes to administer PUA and a companion program to offer a federal extension of benefits to those who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state unemployment.”
Fimiani, 22, has been a volunteer firefighter with the Three Bridges Volunteer Fire Company for the past three years. After earning his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he’s been working on a career transition into OEM management, hopefully one day at the Hunterdon County level.
Fimiani has spent the last few years working for Wells Fargo, and recently TD Bank while attending college, until the coronavirus forced layoffs. He said in a separate interview that Rich has gone out of his way to listen to the issues many have experienced, and Rich took time to call him and guide the follow-ups to his unemployment benefits application to the state.
He said he would like to thank Rich for his service and for bringing the right mindset to public office.
With Fimiani’s own commitment to public service, he said he’s been worrying about many frontline responders, including some of his firefighter peers who are volunteering time at COVID-19 testing centers, including at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg and in Bergen County. They serve boldly while awaiting receipt of unemployment benefits from the state.
“The DOL gets over 3,000 tweets from applicants complaining about a 45- or 55-day period where they have not heard anything,” Fimiani said. “There’s a significant amount of people with pending status for unemployment benefits and many other states have almost handled all the claims or are seeing reductions to applications as they processed claims.”
New Jersey has a very poor infrastructure at the moment,” he added. “People are out there helping, yet their main careers besides volunteer work are no longer available. I’m getting the word out for them and for me. With paying such high taxes in the state, this should not be going on.”
Fimiani emailed the freeholder board, detailing his online application since March 15 that keeps resulting in a standstill with replies from DOL of “pending, please call reemployment center.” Fimiani said he goes online to certify benefits every week on Monday morning, receiving that message each time.
“The re-employment center is extremely overrun, it opens around 7:45 a.m. and they hit capacity for call volume minutes later,” he said. “People are not getting through without the right call center infrastructure. We’re told, ‘please call back the next business day.’”
“I have called 30 times, every morning for weeks,” he added. “I see people within Hunterdon County starving, they can’t put food on their table for their kids, and, topping it off, they can’t even contact the DOL for benefits. If it was not for the stimulus check some have received from the President, we’d be in worse positions. But with our inadequate infrastructure, programming software dating to the mid 1990s, why can’t Gov. (Phil) Murphy approve upgrades to this? Without any upgrades, they wonder why system overloads continue happening.”
Fimiani said he has contacts living in New York State, who noted that new state unemployment claims soared to half a million, but claims dwindled within April as the state paid out $2.2 billion to residents. He says New Jersey is not forthcoming with numbers of how many applicants have and have not been processed since the pandemic hit.
“New Jersey has too many people on pending status without getting paid,” he said. “We should fix the unemployment filing system in order to eventually get people off of unemployment. I’ve already waited 40 days without hearing a single thing when the noticed period is seven to 14 business days to process the claim. Could it be about who you know and not what you know? It is disheartening to realize many of us have waited 40, 50 days, yet someone who applied just three days ago could be processed and receiving payment five days after applying.”
Fimiani said the system’s mass delays will hamper the potential re-openings of businesses and the statewide economy for the foreseeable future, with a trickle-down effect. Small businesses, likely with less staff, will need to navigate a shaky situation for an economic revival if and when social distancing measures ease.
“Our exorbitant amount of taxes and lack of stability will lead to abysmal results for New Jersey,” he said. “Other states are doing much better with unemployment. This should have been fixed long ago. The state did not fix the unemployment benefits system with extreme volume after the 2008-2009 recession, record-setting numbers then, now as well, obviously unprecedented with COVID-19. This situation could not only impact us with people dying from the virus. Fifty percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. You can’t just restart the economy as people are figuring out day-to-day.”