We asked N.J.’s labor commissioner 50 Qs on unemployment benefits

Robert Asaro-Angelo. (File photo)

Why is it taking so long to get my claim processed? … Why can’t I get through when I call? … How are all these claims going to impact my business — and can I, as an owner, get benefits myself? … Who is eligible for the extra $600 dollars in benefits and what do you have to do to get it? … How does the pandemic unemployment assistance program work and who is eligible for it? … How do I get a new PIN or password? … And, again, why is this taking so long?

Questions. There are so many questions around unemployment insurance benefits, the $600 additional benefit — and the pandemic unemployment assistance program, which has been designed to help those who are not eligible for traditional benefits.

New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo joined ROI-NJ for a webinar sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and Withum last week. In a fast-paced hour, Asaro-Angelo answered approximately 60 questions.

We transcribed the questions and his answers, breaking them into three categories:

  • A Q&A that would apply to everyone (see below);
  • A Q&A of interest specifically to employees (click here);
  • A Q&A pertinent to owners/independent contractors (click here).

Asaro-Angelo explained the steps the Department of Labor & Workforce Development is taking to increase its ability to respond to residents as it copes with the unprecedented number of claims — which jumped from approximately 8,000 per week to as many as 250,000.

Asaro-Angelo said the percentage of “clean claims” — those that go through without issue, has remained the same, roughly 50%.

Claims that do not go through cleanly are sent to an agent for a number of reasons, including the failure to properly fill out the form (such as an incorrect Social Security number), an unintentional error (perhaps a discrepancy between the employee and employer on the last day of work) or any other issues.

Then there’s this: The number of phone lines (more than 2,000 at this point) are jammed with people calling to ask questions about eligibility for existing programs and the new COVID-19 specific programs (five were established almost overnight) — or to retrieve/change PINs and passwords they may have set up at previous times.

Asaro-Angelo promises that all benefits will be paid (and backdated so they are paid in full), regardless of when they are pushed through the system. And he estimates that nearly 70% of all claims that have been held up have been processed — and often processed without the need to call the person filing the claim.

Despite this, Asaro-Angelo said he recognizes that any or all of these facts do not matter to someone eager to get benefits — and answers.

With that in mind, the DOL has established a number of FAQ sheets it hopes will bring answers. And Asaro-Angelo did this webinar in an effort to answer more specific questions.

With that, the Q&A from the webinar that will apply to everyone, edited from the original broadcast as needed for content, context or clarity:

 Questions pertinent to everyone

Q: Who is eligible for the additional $600 in benefits? What do you have to do to receive it?

Robert Asaro-Angelo: The $600 is for anybody who is receiving unemployment benefits. It started paying out for the week of March 29. So, if you’re getting unemployment benefits, this $600 will be additional to that. Most folks are getting it 3-4 days after they get their regular unemployment payment.

The March 29 date is key. You will not get the extra benefit for any unemployment insurance you may have received before then. And, if you have not yet been approved for UI, but were eligible for the week of March 29, you will get the additional $600 in benefits when you are approved.

But there’s nothing extra you need to do. Anybody that’s getting benefits also will be getting that separate $600 payment.

Q: What if you are an independent contractor who will receive benefits through the pandemic unemployment assistance program, are you eligible for the additional $600?

RAA: Yes, once that program gets started and you get approved, you will get your assistance backdated to your first day of separation and this additional $600 will also be backdated. Again, going back to the week of March 29.

Q: What if you are only getting partial unemployment benefits? Are you eligible for the additional $600?

RAA: Yes. You will get the $600. It doesn’t matter if your benefit is $300 or if it’s the maximum $713, you’ll still get that additional $600.

Q: For some people, when you add the additional $600 dollars, they may make more by not working, which doesn’t seem right. How are you going to prevent people from just choosing to be unemployed?

RAA: As we’ve made very clear, somebody cannot voluntarily quit and go onto unemployment and then get the additional $600 dollars. You are not allowed to voluntarily quit to become unemployed.

Q: What can you do as an employer if you have work, but your employee is refusing to work because they want to collect unemployment instead?

RAA: Again, the law is that you have to work, if work is available to you. You cannot choose to be unemployed. As we go further along in this process, I’m going to set up an intake form for employers who are having that exact problem, so we know about people who are not coming to work when they have work available to them.

Q: What is the protocol for advocates filing out the forms on behalf of elderly or disabled constituents who do not have access to the internet or are unable to navigate it?

RAA: If you’re at a computer entering things for somebody else, that’s fine.

Q: How was New Jersey’s system before this started? Should we be worried?

RAA: We actually entered this situation in great shape in regard to the solvency of our trust fund. We’ve never had as high a balance in our trust fund, thanks to the work of many businesses and the chamber, which have worked the last decade to shore up and fix the unemployment trust fund.

Read more questions and answers from ROI-NJ: