Since the pandemic began almost two years ago, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development has been deluged with an estimated 2.5 million requests for unemployment insurance.

While great progress has been made, thousands of Garden State residents continue to struggle with the process for a multitude of reasons.

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According to Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo, the Department is up to date on current claims but depending on specific circumstances, claims may still be delayed for weeks or longer.

Federal problem with unemployment

He said one major issue is dealing with claims filed during the period of expanded federal benefits, from basically the start of the pandemic through early September 2021.

“Much of that workload is claimants who are no longer eligible once the federal expanded benefits ended, and are asserting their appeal rights. We’ve asked the federal government to allow us to waive over-payments that were not fraudulent," he said.

He said around 250,000 New Jerseyans have received benefits that were later determined to be ineligible.

"Most of these folks didn’t do anything illegal or improper, but the federal government changed the rules mid-stream, they changed the goalposts, so we’re asking for those over-payments to be waived," he said.

Unemployment process delays

In other instances, he said if part of an unemployment application is filled out incorrectly, depending on the issue, you may or may not get a call back from an agent.

He said if the initial application has enough information to be entered into the system, the review is automated.

“An agent, a human being, would only get involved if what we see is different from what we receive from the employer, or some other information we have doesn’t match up.”

He said the three most common reasons for an agent review are if a claimant is missing an employer on the application; if they have a disqualification from a previous claim; or there may be a question about whether they have enough earnings to qualify.

He noted if a claimant is approved for benefits they still must certify their employment search on a weekly basis, so if a question is answered that makes them ineligible for that week, they will be sent a questionnaire that must be completed.

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Common unemployment mistakes

Asaro-Angelo said if an agent determines a mistake was made by a claimant, benefits will be resumed within a few days.

“For example, somebody on their weekly certification said I’m receiving a pension ... but they really just meant they have a pension waiting for them someday," he said.

When asked what the average wait time is to receive a call from an agent if there’s an issue on an unemployment insurance application form, he said there is no simple answer because it depends on how complicated the issue is and how long it takes to resolve it.

“Unemployment insurance is overly complicated. It’s not in tune with today’s workforce. That’s why we as a state have partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor on a pilot program to make unemployment more accessible,” he said.

He pointed out if DOL is waiting to hear back from a former employer, or employers, a call back to a claimant may take a long time, and if it’s an appeal situation “appeals can be filed by the worker who’s made ineligible, but also can be appealed by an employer for a worker who has been deemed eligible.”

Waiting for call back from unemployment

In some cases, a claimant will be told they will get a call back if more information is needed but that does not necessarily mean they will get a call back. In other cases, the Labor Department agent will call back but the call is not answered.

When you are dealing with millions of individual situations, there are all kinds of reasons why a call back may be delayed, such as timing mistakes or an examiner calling out sick.

When Asaro-Angelo was asked how applicants are informed whether they have been approved for benefits or denied, he said every claimant is initially mailed a determination letter of acceptance or denial.

On a weekly certification, “if you make an error or if the answer is adverse, maybe you’re saying the correct answer but that makes you ineligible for those benefits for that week, that’s when you get that questionnaire via email.”

He said the Department of Labor One-Stop Career Centers continue to function but they are only open for in-person visits by appointment and most cases don't need these centers to get answers to unemployment questions.

“There’s a misunderstanding about the purpose of the One-Stops. Their primary goal is to help people return to the workforce, either in the field they used to work in or a new line of work.”

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