TRENTON, NJ — Michelle Izzi is tired of the excuses and tired of being ignored.
The Hillsborough woman applied for unemployment in mid-March, along with thousands of other New Jersey residents who found themselves jobless when the state started shutting down because of the outbreak of the new coronavirus.
“We need money,” said Izzi, who leads a private Facebook group of nearly 1,700 New Jersey residents who are angry and frustrated with the lack of help in getting their claims processed. “We can’t feed ourselves. What is going on?”
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More than 858,000 New Jerseyans have filed for unemployment since March 16, when Gov. Phil Murphy first started issuing executive orders curtailing businesses in an effort to enforce social distancing. The number is more than 10 times the number of claims the state had a year ago, officials have said.
Getting the crush of claims paid has been a challenge from the start for the Department of Labor, in part because it was saddled with a computer system operating in a 40-year-old computer language that many current programmers did not know.
What has Izzi and thousands of people angry is the inability to get any real answers out of the state on the issue. They’ve tweeted at Murphy and at Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo, to no avail. They’ve used the state’s automated email form.
“I call over 200 times a day and I am never able to get through,” said Robert Malvasi of Montvale, who worked full-time at a gym until they were shutdown. ” I call before 8:30 a.m. and the message says that the call center is closed. I call at 8:31 a.m. and I get a message that they cannot take the call. I have sent three emails via their so-called email portal and I have not received any response. I called my so-called state Assembly (member), congressman, and senator. No response.”
In some cases, people who are getting through are being assigned call appointments in the distant future.
Dana Belka of Collingswood was assigned a call date of June 15 for her monetary appointment. “I’ll be homeless by then and probably without a cell phone,” she wrote. Two commenters replied their call dates were much further out, in 2040 — a clear glitch in the system. Some of the commenters said they were receiving calls much earlier than their call appoinments, however.
Murphy on Tuesday never mentioned the unemployment issues during his daily news conference. On Monday, the topic occupied just 30 seconds of the briefing; Murphy said he has been told by the state labor department that the claims backlog was “back to what we normally have been dealing with pre-crisis.”
The state has said it ramped up efforts to deal with the crush of claims, adding staff, equipping them to work from home and bringing in programmers to update decades-old computer programs.
“We are now pushing through about 60 percent of the claims requiring an agent review, so some workers have had their claim go through and they may not even know it,” Angela Delli-Santi, a spokesperson with the labor department, said April 24.
And while she said people who have questions should use the website, many residents have complained that its generic answers don’t help them.
“I know six people, me being one, who can’t solve their problem with the lack of information on the sitem” said Dianne Silva of Toms River, adding the issues varied from a claim being paid but not to the claimant’s bank account and being unable to reset password due to issues with security questions. “One person finally received a call last Saturday and was told they would have to call them back on Monday, and guess what, they did not get the return phone call.”
Emails on Monday and Tuesday from Patch seeking additional information on the state’s efforts to speed up claims and how many claims are caught in the backlog went unanswered. Read more: NJ Coronavirus Updates: Here’s What You Need To Know
“The frustration comes when there’s no answers!” Cindy Williams from Cherry Hill wrote. “We all know we will have to wait because there’s so many applicants but give real-time timelines, have some people on websites answering questions … we just need updated information so we know what to do.”
Gary Young of Clifton, a kitchen supervisor for a hotel in Woodbridge, said he’s on the verge of losing his health insurance because he has no money to pay the bill.
“I’m on seven weeks out of work, not one word from unemployment,” he said. “I tried to register starting on March 17th and was told there was a conflict. I have emailed them 30 times with no communication back, it’s very fustrating.”
Karen Finnegan of West Long Branch said she started collecting unemployment when the restaurant where she works, Rooney’s in Long Branch, shut down. Initially it was smooth sailing, and she received payments. But she took a job at Target two days a week to keep busy.
She regrets that now, because since she recertified her claim and updated for the partial benefit, she has received nothing.
“I have savings so I’m OK, but there are so many people who are not,” Finnegan said. “They have to fix this.”
Izzi, who is a single mother and owns her own business as a horse trainer and equestrian instructor and coach, said the “be patient” response from the Labor Department and from Murphy isn’t cutting it any longer.
“I have people on my site (the Facebook group) who are suicidal,” Izzi said. “We’re putting together a food drive because they don’t know what they are going to do. In 2020, we shouldn’t have to be doing a food drive.”
She is waiting for the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which was approved in late March to help self-employed, gig and freelance workers, to come through, but so far it’s just more frustration.
“The website takes you in circles,” she said. “It’s not even worth the time.”
Izzi said the desperation caused by the lack of unemployment payments is part of the reason people are demanding the state reopen quickly.
“People could deal a little bit better (with the stay-at-home order) if they had a sense of security that they could pay their bills,” she said.
“Regardless of what time you call you will always get a busy signal and voicemails will always be full,” Malvasi said. “The governor and the DOL leaders need to stop telling untruths. They need own the hot mess the DOL is and come up with a plan to efficiently and effectively deal with it. Waiting six weeks to be paid on a claim is unacceptable.”
Izzi noted that last week Murphy called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that states such as New Jersey just go bankrupt “irresponsible.”
“He’s a hypocrite,” Izzi said. “He’s irresponsible. Murphy is making us go financially, mentally, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt.”
She said Murphy’s order allowing the use of security deposits to cover rent was “absurd.”