Coronavirus News: Workers in New Jersey struggling to claim unemployment benefits

NEW JERSEY (WABC) -- The coronavirus pandemic has created a backlog on state unemployment sites, preventing people in New Jersey from filing for benefits, or worse, receiving their money.

Al Ammenito has worked in construction as a crane operator for the International of Union of Operating Engineers, The Local 825, for the past three decades until he was laid off as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Just like everyone else in this state, we all have bills we have to pay," Ammenito said.

He tried filing for unemployment for the past two weeks, and he is still waiting for his checks to come in the mail.

"You're trying to do it the right way, and it is frustrating," Ammenito said.

On Friday, he finally got through after he tried calling at 7:40 a.m.

"Hopefully, Wednesday or Thursday this week, I'll be able to pay some bills and take care of myself," Ammenito said.

He's not the only person having difficulty with filing weekly unemployment claims.

Unemployed workers across the board are dealing with similar problems when trying to file or, worse, have yet to receive their checks in the mail.

Caitlin Brennan, a former assistant day care teacher, said she received an error message on March 22 that says, "Your claim is not payable."

"My claim got filed pretty fast since then, and this is the sixth week of getting no money," she said. "Sunday, the system crashed. The message: 'Our online applications are not available at this time.' It came back up this morning."

Governor Phil Murphy promises that those people who have filed in the state of New Jersey will get their money.

"There's still a backlog, I know," he said. "Folks are still frustrated. You won't lose one penny, I promise you."

New Jersey has accepted 1 million unemployment applications in the last six weeks, doubling the total of 2019.

For dental hygienist Christina Babiak-Parenti and her boyfriend, who is also out of work, she compares the process of applying for unemployment insurance to undergoing a root canal.

"We go ahead and apply for his claim every week, and when we go to certify his benefits, they can't find his Social Security number, and they have no record of a claim for him," she said. "Every Sunday, I do the same thing. I certify for my weekly, it gets accepted, then it says zero paid out for this claim, zero benefits this week."

The Department of Labor is echoing the governor and asking people for their patience, saying everyone eligible will get their money. The department offered the following tips for those struggling to file claims:

--Read the information on our website before filing. It contains a lot of information in English and Spanish, along with easy-to-understand charts and instructions. Filing for unemployment can be complicated and these guides can help.

--Treat the application like a test. Read and reread the answers, check SSN, start/end dates, etc. before hitting submit. Filling in the information correctly and completely will avoid delays in receiving much-needed benefits.

--Certifying for benefits also can be a challenge. Again, our website has guides on how to answer the certification questions correctly. Follow the instructions on answering the questions, and be sure to follow the schedule for certifying for benefits.

--Workers who are self-employed, freelance or others not traditionally eligible for unemployment -- but probably eligible for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance -- have not received benefits yet. This is a new federal program enacted just four weeks ago that the states administer. NJ, which is ahead of many states, is finalizing its process to determine eligibility and pay these claims.

--It typically takes three weeks to receive benefits from the time a completed and errorless application is submitted. Those relying on federal PUA benefits will receive more information from the Labor Department this week. They do not need to call or email.

--Finally, though we have added phone lines, the phones are still jammed. We are working hard to serve every customer but cannot get to every claim at once. We ask for patience. Many of these claims are being worked on behind the scenes, and are getting resolved without a claimant event realizing. These workers should check their claim status online. If it says "pending," the claim is still in review. If it says "filed" and contains a weekly benefit rate other than $0, they are ready to claim benefits. We are backdating claims, so no one will lose a week of benefits if they had trouble getting through.

--Many questions can be answered by visiting nj.gov/labor.

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