NEW JERSEY — One day before the federal government’s scheduled release of April unemployment figures, state officials detailed their own analysis of unemployment during the pandemic.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday said the state’s Labor Department had received over a million claims in two months and sent out $1.9 billion in unemployment assistance.
“This is an unemployment crisis unlike that which we have ever seen before,” Murphy said during his daily COVID-19 press briefing. “The sheer volume of claims that have been filed in the past two months is far greater than anything the department has had to work through before.”
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 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, 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.
“I don’t have a magic number or set of numbers. I don’t think Judy does either,” he said, referring to state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. “We’re making progress.”
Murphy promised state guidance on reopening beaches would come “sooner than later.”
“I don’t have any comment on the dates … one of the high priority areas we’re working on is guidance,” he said.
The public can anticipate recommendations for social distancing in that guidance.
“I think there’s a widely held view that face coverings are going to be a bigger challenge on the beach,” Murphy said.