(TNS) — The first batch of workers eligible for the expanded 13 weeks of unemployment payments were notified late Thursday that they could start to certify for benefits on Friday.
It was welcome news for some of the 70,000 New Jersey workers who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits — people who lost jobs before the coronavirus crisis hit and who haven’t been able to find a job during the pandemic.
These workers have been on edge for months, eagerly awaiting word that their Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PUEC) claims could finally be processed. The news spread quickly among claimants who have stayed in touch to compare notes and voice their bitterness, anger and frustration.
Thomas Lykes has received one of the coveted messages saying he can certify for benefits on Friday. “I feel that we have been let down by our state big time, and there has been no real solution other than to offer up excuses,” said Lykes, who first lost his shipping job in August 2019. “There appears to be no sense of urgency to get this situation fixed and fixed promptly.”
His benefits ran out in February, just as the coronavirus was taking hold in New Jersey.
“Speaking for myself, it is aggravating just waiting every single day, just hoping that something might happen, and to be told repeatedly that something will be happening ‘soon,’” he said.
The Department of Labor previously said work on these claims would come after the state programmed its computers to handle applications by gig workers and the self-employed. That happened in late April. Then the agency said in early May that the claims for the extra 13 weeks would start to be processed on May 18, but that date came and went with no new notices to workers.
Workers’ hopes were raised on May 20, when the Department of Labor sent email and text messages to claimants saying, “The N.J. Department of Labor anticipates that weekly certifications will be open to applications like yours the week of May 24.”
But there was no further news during the week, and scores of readers contacted NJ Advance Media, desperate for an update. Members of unemployment-related Facebook groups said none of their members had received the “go” to certify.
“We are working as quickly as possible to serve this population,” a Labor Department spokeswoman said earlier in the week.
Jason Williams was also told he can certify on Friday.
His last day was in July 2019 when he lost his job working with people who have mental illness because his company shut down.
His unemployment benefits were exhausted in February. He had leads on a few jobs and even an interview scheduled for March 12, but it all fell apart when the state was shut down, he said.
“I then couldn’t work because the schools were closed so I had to be k彩平台 with the kids,” he said.
He said he lived off his income tax refund while he waited for the extended benefits to start, and then he needed to ask family for help.
“Almost every other day I would search and check about unemployment extensions and couldn’t find anything,” he said. “No returned phone calls. Email replies were automated.”
He said when he finally received the May 24 message from Labor, he was skeptical.
“I didn’t believe it at all because of one keyword they used in that email. It said we `anticipate people being able to certify’ Sunday the 24th,” Williams said. “That word `anticipates’ let me know they said that to cover themselves when people got mad. Semantics.”
But when he was notified late Thursday that he can certify on Friday, he said he was relieved and hopeful that there wouldn’t be a complication.
“I just pray everything goes smoothly and I can let go of some of this stress,” Williams said. “This has been one of the roughest phases I have been through in my 42 years on this planet.”
Aundrea Gonzalez, who lost an accounting job in October 2019, got the notification too. Gonzalez’ benefits ran out in April.
“I did everything under the sun with calling relentlessly and setting alarms super early to try to reach someone or at least get on some sort of line to get a call back from an agent,” Gonzalez said. “I tried to email and got generic responses. I reached out the N.J. Department of Labor Twitter account and all other social media I could find with absolutely no luck.”
Her experience is a common one among many of the nearly 1.17 million New Jerseyans who have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began.
The state said it has paid out more than $4.3 billion so far.
More People Are Waiting
Those who did not get notification to certify Friday said they were happy to hear that some people will be able to certify, but they were also concerned that they will have to wait longer for their own benefits.
Al Burr started to collect unemployment after he was laid off from his operations job in July 2019.
His unemployment payments ended in early February, just as he was close to getting a job in the banking industry, he said. Burr lost that opportunity when the coronavirus hit. He continued to look for work, but he feared bringing the virus k彩平台 to his mother, who has been battling cancer and for whom Burr is a caregiver, he said.
“So, here we are. No unemployment since the first week of February,” he said, noting that he, and others, thought May 24 would be the magic date.
“We all tried to certify to no avail,” Burr said. “We are in limbo and no one is telling us why they gave us this false hope and abandoned us.”
Burr is still waiting for his time to certify.
So is Mark White, who was laid off from his job as a chef in November 2019, two weeks after returning to work after paternity leave.
“I was the only income coming in, so receiving unemployment insurance with a newborn, my wife and her two young boys was absolutely critical,” White said.
His benefits ran out on May 17, and he said he’s hopeful he will be in the next batch of claimants allowed to certify.
“I hope the extension comes through soon, people are suffering, and I understand it’s a lot for the NJDOL, but they have lied to residents, sent out very vague messages that can be interpreted in so many different ways, causing more confusion and questions rather than answers,” White said. “They’ve clearly failed New Jersey’s taxpaying residents by being so incredibly unprepared.”
©k彩平台 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.