N.J. labor commissioner answers questions from workers filing for unemployment benefits

Questions: There are so many questions around unemployment insurance benefits.

ROI-NJ went to the source for the answers, moderating a webinar with Robert Asaro-Angelo, the commissioner of the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

The webinar was sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and Withum.

We broke up Asaro-Angelo’s answers into three parts:

Questions pertinent to employees

Q: There is a requirement that you need to be looking for a job to get unemployment benefits. Are you going to deny folks benefits right now?

File photo
Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo.

Robert Asaro-Angelo: We have relaxed our work search requirements for the time being. But, if somebody is applying, they should still state that they are looking for work. But, for the short term, we have relaxed the requirements as far as having to show us every week that you have reached out to a certain number of employers. We know that we’re not in the same paradigm we were, even a month ago.

Q: Should I say that I’m looking for work even though I’m furloughed and expect that I will be returning to my job?

RAA: Yes.

Q: If I work a full-time job and a part-time job and got furloughed from my part-time job, am I eligible for partial unemployment?

RAA: If you’re working a 40-hour full-time job, you’re probably ineligible for UI benefits from your part-time job. If you have two jobs that equal 40 hours or less, and you lose one of those, you are eligible for partial benefits for the one that you’re losing.

Q: I worked at the same job for more than 10 years. I left that job for a new job in February, right before COVID-19 hit. A few weeks later, I got laid off, and now my claim has been denied. Was I denied benefits because I switched jobs?

RAA: No. You are eligible for unemployment insurance. There are multiple reasons why the claim was denied — or didn’t come in clean. It probably just needs intervention from an agent, like half the claims that come in. But, if someone has been paying in multiple years and then starts a new job — and their job stops because of COVID, they are definitely eligible for unemployment. Your benefits travel with you, not the job.

Q: Our company merged with another company. So, employees from one company now have a hire date on the day of the merger — even though they had no break of service. Will that impact their ability to get unemployment benefits?

RAA: It will not. We still have their wage records. When we look at wage records, it’s still based on the employee, not necessarily who their employer was. They should be fine.

Q: Do you have to apply for a full calendar week, Monday through Friday? Or can you apply for partial weeks?

RAA: You’re always applying for the week prior, essentially. So, you should wait until the beginning of the next week to apply and note when you stopped working. But, if you’re talking about whether or not you’re eligible for UI benefits if you worked for part of the week, the answer is yes — you just wouldn’t get a full week’s benefits the first week.

Q: Are people who were getting unemployment before all of this started — or people who had their unemployment exhausted before all of this — eligible for benefits?

RAA: Yes, part of the CARES act was to extend benefits for 13 weeks. In New Jersey, our benefit period is 26 weeks. So, now, folks will be eligible for 39 weeks. So, if you’re currently collecting, it will be automatically extended 13 weeks. Our hope is that they won’t have to do anything. Folks who have exhausted their benefits since the middle of last year will be eligible for an additional 13 weeks.

We’re working with the U.S. Department of Labor how to go about that. But, per federal rules, we will be notifying everybody who’s eligible for an extension. So, folks who have exhausted their benefits will be hearing from us shortly. Folks who are currently collecting will be getting a notice as well. Our hope is that we’ll be able to do that automatically for the folks who are currently collecting, and we don’t know yet what the process is for folks who have exhausted their benefits. But we should have that soon and they will be hearing from us.

Q: I’ve been denied unemployment benefits for not meeting the minimum 20 base weeks or $8,000 in wages. Am I out of luck?

RAA: No. You likely will be eligible for the pandemic unemployment assistance program. So, file a claim, which will be denied. We’ll be reaching out to everybody who fits into that universe of folks who will now be eligible for the pandemic unemployment assistance. The goal of that program is to be a resource for folks who are ineligible for regular UI, which it sounds like they fall into. (See the Q&A for independent contractors.)

Q: I received a cut in pay but continue to work my regular hours. Can I collect benefits?

RAA: I do not believe so. If you’re still working full time, but just on a reduced salary, you would not be eligible.

Q: Following up that question: Exempt staff pay is not necessarily based on hours. So, if you are exempt and get a cut in pay, is it possible to also say you have a cut in hours and get benefits?

RAA: You can be exempt and have a cut in hours. They can definitely still file for partial, even if they are exempt employees.

Q: Last question: If they’ve cut my pay in half, but not my hours, would it be an ethical and potentially legal question to file and say I’m only working 20 hours a week?

RAA: That would be a correct interpretation.

Q: Are employers allowed to furlough employees and bring them back? Maybe on one week and off one or two, depending on how much need there is for them?

RAA: Yes. Employees would just need to certify which weeks they are working and which weeks they are not. I’m not going to lie; it might not go through as a clean claim. They might have to have been in touch with somebody. But we deal with things like this all the time.

Q: Following up: On the second week that I file a claim, do I file a new claim or resubmit the old one?

RAA: You’re not filing a new claim, you’re recertifying your claim that you are not having any income and that you’re not working. It’s the same claim, you’re just recertifying it.

Q: I went from being a W2 earner last year to a 1099 this year. Am I still eligible?

RAA: Based on those parameters? Sounds like a ‘yes.’

Q: I am a Realtor and I have deals that closed in March and will have two that close in April. So, I have income now. However, because of COVID-19, I have no new business and I will not have income in May, June or July. Should I apply now? Should I wait? How do I handle that situation?

RAA: If you have income now, you should wait. (See the Q&A for independent contractors.)

Q: I work as a per diem massage therapist in a hospital. I only work four to five hours a week, but now I don’t work at all. Am I eligible?

RAA: It would depend. Per diem often means independent contractor, which would make them likely eligible for the pandemic unemployment assistance. But, if they are a W2 employee and they’re hitting enough hours and or wages, they would be eligible. I just don’t know if they are going to hit that minimum threshold.

Q: My child is 17 and had a part-time job that has been closed due to COVID-19. Are they eligible for unemployment as a minor?

RAA: If they’re working enough hours and have the minimum wage base, they’re eligible. And, if not, they may be eligible for the pandemic unemployment assistance program. Age is not a factor, it’s the number of hours worked.

Q: When I got laid off, I got two weeks of severance pay. Do I have to wait two weeks before I can file for unemployment?

RAA: It depends on how the severance is being paid out. If it’s a lump sum before you go, you can start filing. But, if they’re paying it out on a regular basis, as if it were wages, you cannot.

Q: I’m working remotely in another state. Which state do I apply for unemployment?

RAA: If you’re getting paid by a company based in New Jersey, you should file in New Jersey. But, if you’re working remotely for a company based in another state, you should go through that state.

This is one of the biggest problems with our system. Folks who live out of state almost always get flagged for agent intervention as a security measure. We have these interstate wage systems that enable us to work with each other to verify wages from other states and vice versa. That system has been having problems. I feel bad. A lot of folks are getting dinged on that and through no fault of their own, because it’s a national system and it is not being able to keep up with the work.

Q: I had jobs in two states: Two different jobs, two different pays, two different companies. And I got laid off in both of them. Do I apply for unemployment in both?

RAA: No. You can only apply in one. And I think you’re best off filing in the state where you make more money.

Q: So, I wouldn’t be able to collect from both states?

RAA: No. You can only file in one state. We will work with the other state; we do this all the time. As I said, we have a system that shares wages across state lines.

Q: I worked in another state for the first half of 2019. Would that reduce the rate of my benefit because I only worked for a half a year in New Jersey? Should I apply in both states?

RAA: No. We combined wages with other states, but you might have to get paid the benefit rate in the other state, which likely will be lower, if that’s where you worked more. And it’s definitely going to take you more time for your application to be processed, because we have to verify more things.

Q: My unemployment was approved, but every time I go to certify my benefit, it states I have no benefits to claim at this time. And then it gives me a new date to process my certification. What can I do?

RAA: There could be a million different reasons for that. I would say keep trying to certify and, at some point, somebody will get back to you or you’ll get an email or a letter about scheduling an appointment.

Q: If I made a mistake on an application, where can I correct it without talking to an agent?

RAA: That’s a difficult one. And, just to be clear, a lot of these issues are for the claimant’s own protection. There has been a lot of UI fraud in the past, so we’ve changed our processes so we can verify that the actual person making the change is that person. The overall answer depends on what the change is — but they likely will need to speak with an agent.

Q: Can someone change their PIN (personal identification number) online?

RAA: There is a security aspect here, too. This was a big measure we put into place years back to reduce fraud, because people were basically assuming someone else’s identity, changing their PIN and getting their benefits. For many years, it’s been an agent issue, so we can triple-check your identity. That will be changed very shortly, much to our happiness. A large portion of the calls coming in are about password and login and PIN resets.

Q: I have gotten an N.J. DOL prepaid card. However, I’m receiving my unemployment payments via direct deposit in my checking account. What should I do with the prepaid card?

RAA: Well, there’s probably no money on it. That’s the first I’ve heard of somebody getting direct deposit but also getting a card. It’s usually the other way around.

Read more questions and answers from ROI-NJ: