More than a million residents of New Jersey have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15 as a result of the pandemic shut-down orders that shuttered many businesses deemed non-essential.

One workplace that will be hiring, however, is the state's unemployment office, which is struggling to keep up with the demand.

Labor Department officials on Thursday said 300,000 claimants are still waiting to get their benefits.

Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo said the department is hiring 130 full-time staff and returning dozens of department retirees to work. Existing staff have logged tens of thousands of overtime hours. And a new call center will help the hundreds of workers staffing the existing call center.

He also said that the unemployment website on Friday will launch a chatbot that will  answer people's questions so that they won't need to reach the call center.

Asaro-Angelo said the biggest problem is confusion about the weekly certification questionnaire.

“If a claimant answers any of these questions incorrectly, per federal law — this is a federal program — they’ll be met with a 'claim is not payable at this time' message,” he said.

He said to try to alleviate confusion, “we have issued a clear guide with answers to ensure there is no inadvertent or unnecessary holdups.”

“The guide, which can be found at myunemloyment.nj.gov, is perhaps the single most important piece of information for our unemployment benefit recipients," he said.

Beginning Friday, a claimant cannot proceed to certification without acknowledging they have read this guide.

He said online upgrades have been made and hundreds of additional workers have already been trained to speed up the claims process.

“Fifty percent of claims go through right away and are paid in two to three weeks. In general, the median time it takes for a claim to hit the payment database is six days,” he said.

He said once that happens, “93% of claimants receive benefits within two weeks and 97% within three weeks. But, yes, there are still a number of people waiting to have their claims reviewed.”

Asaro-Angelo said other reasons a claim may be delayed include missing information, waiting for other states to confirm wages earned there and employers contesting the reason for the separation.

The department has distributed $1.9 billion in benefits to more than 700,000 residents.

“The sheer volume of claims filed in just the past two months is far, far greater than the department or its systems has had to work through," Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday.

“Let’s remember the ties that bind us as New Jerseyans. We know some of you are frustrated, I don’t blame you, but let’s get through this together.”

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