MONTCLAIR, NJ -- NJ Labor Department today announced that 800,000 unemployed and underemployed workers are now receiving state and federal benefits. ("That’s more people than the number of people who live in 5 US states," the Labor Dept. boasted on it Twitter page).

Recognizing that many people have been unable to claim their benefits, the agency also tweeted: "Thank you to our claimants for your patience and understanding as we work toward getting 100% of our eligible workers the benefits they are due."

For some local residents of Scotch Plains-Fanwood, applying for and receiving social security benefits has been an ongoing source of frustration.

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"I placed my claim on April 5, 2020. The claim status page on the website still says 'Claim Pending’.  I have not received any communication from them. I have tried to call every day, all day, with no success," Bruce Warren told TAPintoSPF.  "This is very aggravating."

Warren, a Scotch Plains resident, contacted Assemblywoman Linda Carter (D, LD-22) about his claim issue. Carter called him back herself and said her office is putting together a communication with the Department of Labor about issues with unemployment claims.

"The biggest problem is no one answers the phones. You can’t ever get someone on," said Scotch Plains resident Sue Chin, who has also encountered difficulty having her claim fulfilled. "You can call day and night, but no answers."

Sally Depew called the process "confusing." 

"I got one week, then I couldn’t get it and appealed," said Depew, who is now getting letters to send back her first payment. 

Is it a matter of inputting things incorrectly, as the Dept. of Labor says?

"It may not seem like it at first glance, but New Jersey's unemployment insurance system is working as intended, with nearly 800,000 unemployed and underemployed workers receiving state and federal benefits," said Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Rob Asaro-Angelo at Gov. Murphy's daily COVID-19 press conference on Thursday, May 14. "More than $2.7 billion has been deposited into the bank accounts and onto the debit cards of eligible New Jersey workers. The mission of this department has never wavered, to lead the nation in delivering on our promise to ensure our workers receive every benefit they are entitled to."

Asaro-Angelo said that according to a New York Times article on Tuesday, New Jersey is still performing better than most states in paying out benefits after this crush of layoffs and temporary furloughs due to COVID-19.

"But as I've said, this means little to those still waiting for their benefits, and we want to do more," he said.

The commissioner also announced that an additional 139,000 claimants are being made newly eligible, which is hopefully of some comfort to many of those who've been waiting for benefits. The figure includes nearly 60,000 claims in the third batch of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants that were just converted for processing, meaning essentially everyone who was eligible for this new federal assistance and applied by April 12th -- an overwhelming majority -- has been processed.

"This is incredible work, which I will detail more later, but I want to thank all of our staff who have been embarking on creative solutions to the historical volume of claims that came with this pandemic," Asaro-Angelo said. 

The commissioner said that while there are "small percentages of people who have been waiting for some time, it's not because of a system glitch or delay by the agency." Rather, it is because for some reason, under unemployment law and US DOL guidance, they're not immediately eligible for benefits.

"If not for system upgrades made during the Murphy administration, and programming improvements since the pandemic hit, the number of claimants receiving benefits would barely be over half of what it is today," he said. "Now that there is such an incredible number of people in the system certifying benefits, we ask all of our claimants to follow our social security number-based schedules, so we can regulate the load coming into our systems. And take a moment, or two or three, to read the important guides we posted to make sure they're answering questions correctly."

"Aggressively advocate for yourself"

"Your claim has to be PROPERLY processed on their end for you to be able to certify," said Stephanie Licata, a business and career-change consultant who recently moved to Scotch Plains. "The issue is with claims that were not processed or not processed correctly.  And how are you to know if you made a mistake if you haven't been able to speak to someone?"

"You need to aggressively advocate for yourself, read the instructions and pay attention every day as things change rapidly," said Licata, said. "If you want to sit back and wait for someone to pay you without being part of the solution, then that is an issue. We are all in a terrible time, and we have to be vigilant to get what is owed to us."

"Of all of the people I have helped, many of them have gotten through to an agent using (732) 761-2021 -- a number that isn't widely published," she added. "When you call and you hear 'Due to the high volume of calls we cannot take your call at this time...', hang up. Keep calling. I called hundreds of times for over a week."

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