Almost 140,000 New Jersey residents and 4.4 million Americans sought jobless claims the week ending April 18, according to federal data, as government responses to stop the spread of COVID-19 put the breaks on nationwide commerce.
In total, more than 26 million Americans and almost 860,000 New Jerseyans lost their jobs in the past month as the pandemic rages across the country, according to data released Thursday morning from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Today’s unemployment report shows continued, elevated unemployment claims caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement. “The Department of Labor is continuing to provide guidance and support to the states as they implement the enhanced unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, with 44 states now paying the $600 additional weekly benefit provided by the Act.”
Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the closure of any “non-essential” retailers, such as bars, dine-in restaurants, salons, gyms, theaters, nightclubs and malls. His order prohibits non-essential travel, non-essential construction, in-person school attendance, elective surgeries, and public gatherings such as concerts, sporting events and religious services.
As a result, 139,277 New Jerseyans filed for unemployment last week, compared to 141,420 state residents for the week ending April 11; 213,897 claims for the week ending April 4 and 205,515 claims for the week ending March 28.
The state labor department’s numbers are slightly different from those at the federal level, which the statewide agency said was because USDOL based its data off the advanced report. That data shows 140,139 residents filed for unemployment last week.
New Jersey’s unemployment system has been fraught with delays, stemming from the historic demand for benefits and the agency’s dependence on a 60-year-old computer language known as COBOL.
As of Monday, the state sorted through 60 percent of its claimants, according to Murphy – or 166,000 New Jerseyans. That translates to more than 500,000 workers in the state collecting jobless benefits, according to Angela Delli-Santi, a spokesperson for the state’s labor department.
“[A]bout 60 percent have been moved through because of a recent programming upgrade … the other 40 percent still need an agent to review the claim, which could be for any number of reasons,” she added.
“We continue to urge workers to visit our website and read our guides before they file. We want claimants to get their money quickly; application errors could cause needed benefits to be delayed for weeks. However, we are backdating all claims so no one misses a week of benefits, even if they have trouble getting through,” Delli-Santi said.
The goal is to push that number up to 80 percent by Friday, Murphy said.
State officials paid out $179.7 million of unemployment benefits between April 13 and 17, compared to $140.7 million the week before and $89.9 million the prior week.
“There clearly has been an improvement,” Murphy said at a Trenton COVID-19 press briefing on Wednesday afternoon. “If you’re still on the phone and you can’t get through or you’re trying to log on and you can’t get in, and you’re frustrated, I don’t blame you.”
Last week, the labor department tacked on 500 staff members with computers for telecommuting to process claims and provide customer service from home, according to the governor.
In addition, “updated IT programming” is allowing for quicker turnaround for applications.
The federal stimulus CARES Act includes $260 billion to shore up the state’s individual unemployment systems, and includes $600 in additional weekly job benefits between April 14 and July 26. The first round of those added benefits came in this week, the New Jersey labor department said.
Freelancers on furlough
The CARES act also expands those benefits to furloughed workers, freelancers and independent contractors, but state officials only last week rolled out guidelines for how they could qualify for unemployment aid, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
Applying for regular unemployment and receiving a denial is a prerequisite for PUA eligibility, according to state labor spokesperson Delli-Santi, even though federal labor officials have disputed the necessity of that step.
“We have not begun to process [PUA] program in NJ, but we anticipate having it up and running shortly,” she said. “Meanwhile, these workers should apply for state unemployment and also collect 2 years of income records (1099s, tax statements), which will be used to determine the amount of benefits they receive.”
Freelancers are also eligible for federal tax credits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which went into effect on April 1.
“We are working diligently on getting federal benefits to independent contractors, freelancers and self-employed workers whose incomes have dried up due to COVID-19,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said Thursday morning.
A payroll tax credit program under the CARES Act is also available, which lets businesses get tax refunds based on 50 percent of employee wages up to $10,000 each quarter, with an overall cap of $5,000.