(TNS) — Tens of thousands of unemployment claimants are answering a federally mandated question wrong every week, holding up their own claim, the New Jersey Labor Department said.
“It doesn’t mean they did anything wrong, but these are federally mandated questions we need to ask for weekly certification,” said Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said during an interview on NJ Spotlight. “20,000 claimants a week — 20,000 a week — were still being ‘pended’ because one of those eight questions was being answered in a way that we had to pend their claim per federal rules.”
These questions have to be answered by claimants to continue collecting benefits. If a question is answered “in a way that raises question about their eligibility for benefits,” it must be reviewed “to ensure the claim continues to be valid,” said Labor spokeswoman Angela Delli-Santi.
She urged claimants to visit the tip sheet the Labor Department to clarify how to answer questions, depending on people’s work circumstances. “It is extremely beneficial for claimants to familiarize themselves with the questions before certifying for benefits to avoid pending their claim. New Jersey may be the only state to offer such extensive guidance to its claimants,” Delli-Santi said.
During the interview on NJ Spotlight Thursday night, Asaro-Angelo said the tip sheet was an “enormous step” to help claimants, but people still often check the wrong box, or select an accurate one that forces them to have to speak to an agent.
This could be the reason that thousands of New Jersey residents continue to await payment, despite the Labor Department’s completion of the 11-week benefit extension.
Still, Asaro-Angelo explained, the Labor Department automatically runs a weekly script that “unpends the ones we feel comfortable unpending.”
“There are certain ones, because of federal law, we need to speak to that person, and that is definitely a hang up for people. I do not deny that at all,” he said.
The 11-week extension was held up for weeks while the state awaited federal guidance on distributing the funds, leaving some New Jerseyans more than six weeks without payment and more than 75,000 residents in limbo.
More than 2 million claims have been filed since the pandemic began nearly 11 months ago, when Gov. Phil Murphy ordered nonessential businesses and restaurants to close to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Since the unemployment office was suddenly flooded with claims, it’s been faced with technological hurdles that have left claimants without benefits for weeks and months at a time. Asaro-Angelo has been advocating for the federal government to consolidate all 50 individual state systems into one to make it simpler to use.
The Labor Department is in regular contact with the Biden administration and colleagues in other states to begin preparing for the next stimulus package. The current one, which was signed by former President Donald Trump in late December and funds a weekly $300 payment, expires March 13.
While the department is limited in how much it can prepare, Labor workers are doing what they can based on current discussions of what the bill could contain, Delli-Santi said.
The latest stimulus proposal could include $400 weekly payments to all unemployment claimants, which would require the Department of Labor to institute new programming.
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