75,000 in NJ unemployment limbo could get paid next week
TRENTON — Nearly 75,000 state residents have been cut off from unemployment benefits that they're due. But state officials say they should start getting payments by next Friday.
Gov. Phil Murphy and Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo on Friday acknowledged what news organizations across the state, including Townsquare Media News, have been reporting — that thousands of families have stretched to the financial limit, unsure when their next check would arrive.
Asaro-Angelo blamed former President Donald Trump for waiting until the "last moment" to sign the law extending federal benefits, leaving states to scramble to update their systems and wait on clarification on new rules.
Complicating matters is the array of programs, including a $300 supplemental payment to anybody eligible for unemployment payments and an 11-week extension to anyone who had used up their benefits.
State officials said the challenge has been to extend the benefits to the 75,000 people who had exhausted their benefits.
Asaro-Angelo said federal rules require that unemployed claimants use up their Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits before starting extended benefits.
Asaro-Angelo said the state "grounded" the 75,000 claimants in order to "reprogram" the system to extend their payments. He said Friday that the system would be able to handle any other claimants who exhaust their benefits while the 75,000 who are waiting should start getting their retroactive payments on Feb. 12.
He said people will be notified by email when their extended benefits become available.
Asaro-Angelo said states like New Jersey would have had the time needed to make the adjustment had the federal government extended the benefits weeks earlier.
He said the Labor Department also would be doubling the number of agents in its call center by next month.
New Jersey is not alone in struggling to meet the unemployment crisis. The crush in claims has exposed the antiquated state and federal unemployment systems that were built for workforces of a bygone era. Labor officials say the state has been hamstrung by federal regulations that make it difficult for certain types of workers to access benefits. And the sheer number of people losing their jobs at once has made it difficult for Labor Department claims examiners to help people who have specific circumstances delaying their payments.
The state has paid $22 billion in benefits to 1.5 million people since March, paying $15,000 on average – although 54% of claimants have received more than $20,000 in benefits.
But as Murphy noted on Friday, that is small comfort to families waiting for their own benefits.
"I grew up with a family that lived dollar to dollar," he said. "There were periods when my dad, in particular, wasn't working and it is brutal. We have nothing by empathy and sympathy and will do everything we can to get to a better place as fast as we can."
In December, the state’s unemployment rate fell by 2.6 percentage points to 7.6%. But labor officials said that was more due to people dropping out of the job market rather than landing jobs. The state has recovered just 58% of the jobs it lost since April.