Thousands of New Jerseyans eye fate of jobless benefits as CARES Act hits snag

Daniel J. Munoz//December 23, 2020//

Thousands of New Jerseyans eye fate of jobless benefits as CARES Act hits snag

Daniel J. Munoz//December 23, 2020//

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Unemployment benefits now hang in the balance for nearly half a million New Jerseyans economically hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as another snag between Congress and the White House threatens to derail talks for a new federal relief package.

All told, nearly 1.9 million New Jerseyans have been out of work since March and filed for unemployment at some point because of the COVID-19 pandemic and mass business closures meant to halt the spread of the virus. That’s led to record-high unemployment rates, over $20 billion of jobless benefits since March, and in several cases hundreds of thousands of jobless claims in the course of just a week.

While not explicitly threatening to veto the $900 billion CARES Act deal, President Donald Trump strongly criticized the deal on Dec. 22, saying he wanted $2,000 stimulus checks rather than the agreed upon $600.

The first iteration of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March included one-time payments of $1,200, and Congressional Republicans are blocking efforts for similarly-sized checks.

Under the CARES Act, the federal government set up two expanded unemployment programs, one that extends jobless benefits for 13 weeks, and another that provides unemployment for contract and freelance workers, part-time workers, sole proprietors, and those who are self-employed.

There are 312,000 New Jerseyans getting freelancer benefits, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and 175,000 getting federal extended benefits, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, according to the state Labor Department. In total, the state has distributed nearly $3.8 billion under those two programs.

Both will be extended for 11 weeks as part of the deal. But on paper, they are set to expire on Dec. 26, and should Trump fail to sign a new CARES Act by then.

“We strongly encourage the USDOL to provide states the information and guidelines needed as soon as possible. Once provided, states will be working night and day to ensure these new benefits are available in an expedient manner,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a Dec. 22 statement.

The CARES Act deal calls for weekly $300 federal unemployment relief checks to go out to Americans for 13 weeks, down from $600 a week which expired in July.

“We are grateful for any additional help that is on the way for our workforce, who are in such dire economic straights due to the pandemic, but we must caution New Jerseyans these benefits won’t be seen immediately,” he said of the three programs. “The bill will take time to implement once the states receive the rules from the federal government.”

According to Angela Delli-Santi, “the chance of a gap in benefits increases the longer the bill goes unsigned.”

Federal labor data on Wednesday shows that 15,484 New Jerseyans filed for unemployment the week ending Dec. 19, compared to 16,368 in the prior week.

“The impact of this pandemic on our workforce and our economy has been enormous, and I urge the President to sign the stimulus bill that is on his desk so an estimated half-million New Jerseyans aren’t left without vital federal unemployment benefits at the end of this week,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a Wednesday press conference.

A bill sent to Murphy’s desk last week infuses $350 million to cover unemployment benefits between Dec. 22 and Feb. 27, 2021, for anyone whose benefits expire between those dates.

An added $300 a week of federal unemployment relief for up to six weeks – under a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – has gone out to hundreds of thousands of jobless claimants. But that’s mostly dried up.