Lawmakers grill NJ Labor commissioner in hearing about unemployment delays

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are still thousands of New Jersey residents who are having issues receiving their unemployment benefits.
Brick resident Catherine Curtis is one of the people struggling with the department. She says that she is two weeks away from being evicted.
“I've never once collected unemployment in my life. This is the first time, and I can't access it,” Curtis says.
It has been one year since Curtis was laid off from her job in the medical field because of the pandemic. That whole time she has tried and failed to get her unemployment money from the state Department of Labor.
“I’d call morning, noon and night. Couldn’t get through. All I’d get was a busy single,” Curtis says.
She says that she estimates that she spent days on the phone waiting.
“It was a year and three months that I finally got through,” Curtis says.
She went through a partial layoff in March 2020. She couldn’t get benefits then either. Since then, she fell four months behind on her rent of her apartment in Brick and is now facing eviction.
“I’m living on Social Security, which doesn’t cover everything. And I go to my church once a month to their food pantry,” says Curtis.
State lawmakers took the head of the state Department of Labor to task in Trenton on Thursday during a hearing.
“I doubt any group of state workers has been as effective and productive as our [unemployment] agents these past two years,” Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo said during the hearing.
Asaro-Angelo defended his department during the hearing.
“I don't want you to twist my words, ‘We care don't care about these people.’ We care deeply about them,” the commissioner said.
But for people like Curtis, the delays may show otherwise.
“It's snowballing now and if it doesn't stop soon, I'm going to be so under I hope I can get back out,” she says.
For thousands of New Jersey residents, the security of unemployment turned out to be a false hope.
“It's supposed to be there when you need it. But not for me,” Curtis says.
Curtis has a hearing in her eviction case in just two weeks.
After the state Senate hearing, Democratic state Sen. Fred Madden said, "Unemployment services in New Jersey have been unacceptable…The state of New Jersey cannot do this to its people."