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NJ unemployment: Rep. Chris Smith says Murphy restricts how many people he can help


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U.S. Rep. Chris Smith and the state's top Labor Department official are in a war of words over new limits on unemployment claims he can troubleshoot on behalf of residents having problems filing for benefits.

Smith, a Republican whose Fourth District stretches across parts of Monmouth, Ocean and Mercer counties, said his office has received hundreds of requests since the pandemic began from those who were forced out of jobs and facing challenges applying for unemployment insurance.

The congressman's staff has been submitting claims on their behalf, stating that at least 900 have been filed with their help and hundreds more are pending.

More: NJ workers still face steep hurdles filing unemployment claims. Here are some of them

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But on Feb. 25, Smith was told by state Labor Department officials that a new limit had been placed on the number of claims that third parties can file on behalf of residents — just 25 every two weeks.

“The new policy to restrict me and other legislators to raising timely questions on only 13 critical cases per week is unprecedented, unfair, and counterproductive — especially in this time of great need,” Smith said in a March 10 letter to Gov. Phil Murphy.

The story continues below the embedded letter, which you can also read here.

“For the past 12 months, my staff and I have advocated and worked tirelessly to help people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic, including and especially those who have lost their jobs due to no fault of their own," he wrote. "To date, I have helped close to 900 people get positive results and the unemployment benefits they deserve.”

Murphy's office referred the letter to state Labor Department Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo, who responded on March 13 with a letter that praised Smith's helpful efforts, but also claimed federal unemployment policies were part of the problem.

"As you may recall I wrote to you last September with suggested improvements to the federal unemployment system which the states administer," the letter said, in part. "Unfortunately, I did not hear back from your office on our suggestions which would greatly improve the experience for your constituents. I do hope that you and the rest of the New Jersey delegation sign onto HR1458, the Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act. I will be sending a formal request under separate cover."

Smith's office said they received the letter Tuesday and he has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill mentioned in the letter (HR 1458). "Limiting those of us trying to help is not the answer—I’ve never seen anything like it," Smith said Tuesday. 

Murphy’s office referred questions to the New Jersey Department of Labor, which had no comment other than to provide a copy of Asaro-Angelo's letter.

Smith's letter added that it would take more than a year to submit the hundreds of claims still pending, with more being requested each day, if the new policy remains.

“People are hurting financially. They are concerned — even frightened — and reach out in emotional despair trying to find any guidance, any help as they seek to put food on their tables and meet several other obligations — with no benefits coming from the state for weeks on end,” the letter said.

The story continues below the letter, which you can also read here.

The criticism comes at a time when President Joe Biden’s newly signed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan includes a federal boost to jobless benefits expiring for millions of Americans. 

Under the plan, millions of Americans will receive $1,400 stimulus checks, as well as an extension of jobless aid to Sept. 6 and continuation of an extra $300 in weekly unemployment each.

But the extended benefit does not mean anything if residents cannot file claims in a timely manner, critics say.

Thousands of New Jersey workers are still unable to resolve problems filing unemployment claims amid the COVID pandemic and face delayed payments of their benefits.

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Some workers abruptly stopped seeing checks. Others never moved from a "pending status" or haven't had an interview scheduled to determine whether they are eligible for jobless benefits. Some are waiting for agents to backdate their claims.

It's difficult to calculate how many workers await help, and how much money they are owed. The Department of Labor says 4% of "eligible claimants," or roughly 78,000 people, had not received at least one payment s of last month.

But what about those who were never able to submit a claim? Or those who received one check and then saw the payments stop? What about those who haven't yet spoken to an agent to determine whether they qualify? 

The problems many workers face are specific, not easily answered by a tip sheet or generic email response. Asaro-Angelo said last month that the state hopes to double the number of its call center employees so workers can get through to a live person.

“To be clear, even though call center staff cannot resolve all cases, they can resolve many issues on the spot,” Angela Delli Santi, a Labor Department spokesperson, said in February. “Agents can’t resolve every issue on the spot, either. Sometimes disputes must be adjudicated separately. Or we must await income info from other states.”

Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at jstrupp@gannettnj.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp