New Jersey’s labor department is rushing to play catch-up with the new federal unemployment guideline and a surge in demand for benefits, exacerbated by the influx of now-eligible freelancers and independent contractors, self-employed individuals and furloughed workers.
Last month’s landmark $2.2 trillion federal aid bill, known as the CARES Act, includes $260 billion to shore up individual states’ unemployment. The bill also calls for $600 extra in individual weekly benefits through July. But New Jersey’s system has endured speed bumps, especially in recent days, for how those benefits will be extended to non-traditional workers, and how those without a job will get the additional pay.
The labor department, Gov. Phil Murphy said last week, depends on a 60-year-old programming language known as COBOL, in order to communicate with 40-year-old computer mainframes.
“[G]iven the legacy systems we should add a page for COBOL computer skills because that’s what we’re dealing with in these legacies,” Murphy said at an April 4 press briefing in Trenton, adding that there will be a state call to volunteers for anyone who has familiarity with the antiquated language.
“We are seeing a volume of claims to our website and calls to our customer service centers exponentially higher than at any time in history… the first week of the crisis we saw a 1,600 percent increase in volume —1,600 percent in a single week,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said at the April 4 briefing.
The federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program provides the weekly $600, retroactive to the week ending April 4, while the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program provides the added weeks through the week ending July 26.
Those added payments will be going out this week, the labor commissioner said.
Meanwhile, the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program expands benefits to non-traditional workers for up to 39 weeks, retroactive to Jan. 27. Federal guidelines were released on April 5.
Representatives for the federal labor department did not immediately return requests for comment.
“We received some federal guidance last night. We are still going through it to see how it affects N.J., and how we quickly we can implement [sic],” Angela Deli-Santi, a spokesperson for New Jersey Department of Labor, said in a statement.
“We have asked those workers to apply online for unemployment,” she added regarding freelance workers and independent contractors. “They will almost certainly be denied, but that denial of eligibility for traditional unemployment is a necessary prerequisite for eligibility for the special unemployment compensation due to COVID-19.”
The federal benefits are now extended to temporary furloughs, which is a process by which employers require an unpaid leave of absence for workers.
Many businesses have taken this route, so that they can continue providing health benefits while those workers would now qualify for federal benefits. The longer a furlough lasts, the more likely the applicant is to qualify to receive benefits.
Furloughed workers should select “yes” on the unemployment form when asked if they are able to work and actively looking for a job, according to the labor department.
“I can’t stress enough how much we empathize with the frustration, fear and economic uncertainty that comes with suddenly being unemployed,” Asaro-Angelo said last week. “Due to the high volume of claims being filed, there may be a delay in processing the backdate but they will be paid for each week they’re eligible for benefits no matter when the claim gets processed.
“We recognize this is small consolation when the bills are due today but we are working on getting you help as fast as we can.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. EST on April 7, 2020 to correct the name of the computer programming language the labor department uses; it is COBAL, not Cobalt. This story was updated at 7:24 a.m. EST on April 8, 2020 to correct the spelling of COBAL to COBOL.