Earlier this week, Planet Princeton posted a story about a new chatbot feature that the New Jersey Department of Labor launched to answer commonly asked questions about unemployment. Since that post, we have received hundreds of emails, calls, and comments from area residents who can’t get their unemployment claims processed. They are desperate for relief. Many applied for unemployment insurance in March, and they need to speak to a real person at the New Jersey Department of Labor.
Adding to their frustration and anxiety, when some of them reach out to local non-profits to receive food or help paying bills, they are told they must have exhausted all other avenues, and that if they are applying for unemployment, they can’t receive help. In some cases, these residents have been asked to provide bank statements to prove they have no money, and to provide eviction notices even though landlords in the state aren’t supposed to be evicting people. The back-rent will still be due after the emergency is over, and many of the people who are trapped in limbo are worrying.
“I’ve now gone almost 2 months without receiving my benefits and I’ve been approved since March 22,” one person told Planet Princeton. “I’ve exhausted my savings and now I have no money for food for my child. We are very stressed now about food.”
A reader named Nathan said he applied for unemployment on March 19. “I received unemployment instructions in the mail saying I could start claiming benefits on April 1. Every week I get claim not payable at this time,” he said. “You can’t get a person to speak to through mail or on the phone. One would think that two months would be enough time to contact someone by phone or email if there was a question for the claimant.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly asked residents to be patient because the state is processing a record number of unemployment claims. He announced last week that the Department of Labor has increased staffing and provided several hundred employees with new computers so they can process claims from home. But residents who can’t pay their bills or put food on the table say the state needs to do more to fix the system.
At least a dozen people who contacted us were so distraught, they began to cry. They have tried over and over to call the New Jersey Department of Labor’s hotline, but can’t talk to someone. They don’t even get put on hold. Instead, a recording says “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we cannot take your call at this time. Please call back later.” They are then disconnected.
One reader said the new chat feature is useless for people who have been waiting for benefits. “This isn’t any good for someone who needs to talk with someone. “My son applied April 1 and it said he needed to talk to a representative. I still can’t believe it, if you call at 8 a.m. it tells you that everyone is busy, call back tomorrow. Are they just not taking any calls and if they are not, then why are they telling people they have to speak with someone? Being patient doesn’t feed your family.”