UNION, NJ – New Jersey Department of Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo discussed the backlog of unemployment claims, long call wait times, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (PUA) during his appearance at the township’s weekly Facebook Live Question and Answer forum on Friday, with Mayor Michele Delisfort, State Senator Joseph Cryan and Health Department Director Marconi Gapas.
While Delsifort, Cryan and Gapas provided updates and information and took questions from viewers about COVID-19-related issues, the majority of questions were for Asaro-Angelo.
“We are obviously facing a lot of problems in the state,” began Asaro-Angelo, “unemployment is one of the biggest.” When COVID-19 first hit the state, said Asaro-Angelo, the state saw a 1600 percent increase in claims. He said there are over one million unemployment claimants in New Jersey.
Asaro-Angelo said over 700,000 New Jerseyans are already receiving benefits. He said the median time to have a claim processed is six days, and 97 percent of claimants receive their first check (or deposit) within three weeks; 93 percent within two weeks.
“But, when we’re talking about three percent of a million, that’s tens of thousands of people,” said Asaro-Angelo. “So even that small percentage of people waiting for benefits is more than we paid in a normal month last year.” Asaro-Angelo said it’s hard to overstate the volume of claims, but he realizes “nothing I’m saying or talking about today is going to make it any better for that person waiting for their checks, and we totally understand.”
Asaro-Angelo one of the reasons for delays are inaccurate claim submissions, which then require intervention by an unemployment insurance agent. He said he recommends claimants go to the Department of Labor website first to read through instructions and FAQs. “Treat your unemployment filing like it’s your final exam,” he added.
Asaro-Angelo said “there’s no doubt, we are slammed on the phones, which is the biggest problem we hear.” He said the department receives thousands of calls a day, and "we are working tirelessly to expand our capacity." He said the Department of Labor is in the process of hiring 100 new unemployment insurance call center staff and working on getting an outside phone vendor. Asaro-Angelo said aside from background checks, new employees require extensive training. “Unemployment law is not easy; unemployment rules and regulations are not simple,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to speed up the process and help claimants.”
Fifty percent of claims go through the process without a problem, said Asaro-Angelo. The other half, he said, require ‘agent intervention’. “Usually that wouldn’t be a problem because we have enough agents to handle this,” he said, “but when all of a sudden we go from a couple thousand claims a week to 144,000 on week one to now over a million, we don’t have enough agents to handle that.” He said of those claims requiring intervention, about sixty-percent have been “pushed through”. The remaining claims have more than one issue and require agent intervention to gather additional or corrected information to process the claim.
Asaro-Angelo said the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is for those who are not normally eligible for unemployment benefits, such as independent contractors, self-employed individuals, and those who do not make enough money. “We’re so thrilled about these benefits, but it took us a while to get the program up and running. It’s a brand new federal program that’s going to serve hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans.” Asaro-Angelo estimates there are 275,000 people across the state who fall into the program. He said about 75,000 PUA claims were processed last week. Another large group of claims are in process and “we’re hoping to get to the final chunk late next week.” Asaro-Angelo said these are a huge majority of those not yet receiving benefits.
“Every single New Jerseyan will get every single penny they are eligible for no matter when they get it,” said Asaro-Angelo. “I want them to get it yesterday, trust me.”
Asaro-Angelo addressed those who have adjudication appointments for July or August, saying a large amount of them are PUA claimants. But, he said, hundreds of thousands will come off of the automated schedule, moving up appointments slated for the summer months. Those individuals will receive notification about their earlier appointment. Asaro-Angelo also recommends individuals check their status every day at their website -- myunemployment.nj.gov .
Asaro-Angelo added, “one of the lessons we’ve learned in this is what we really need to improve is our communications. It’s been difficult for us to get enough communication to folks with everything changing so rapidly. We’re working on this every day.”