Nearly 1 year into pandemic, many NJ residents still face issues with unemployment claims

Many New Jerseyans say they are still encountering difficulties filing for unemployment benefits nearly one year into the pandemic. While Gov. Phil Murphy says the state has fixed any "systemic" issues and all remaining problems are "individual,” some claimants tell Kane In Your Corner that even simple snags like an errant mouse click can lead to claims being deemed "not payable" and can take six months or more to correct.
"I don't have any more savings," says Jessica Santos. "I've used everything."
A single parent, Santos' small skincare business went under due to the pandemic. She'd only collected unemployment benefits for a few weeks when she accidentally clicked on the wrong selection while certifying for weekly benefits in July. The money abruptly stopped. She's still waiting for it to start again.
But the state recently sent Santos a 1099 form showing she received more than $12,000 in unemployment income in 2020, so the Internal Revenue Service now says she owes taxes on benefits she did not receive.
"It's unacceptable," she says. "It's not OK. We cannot continue to live like this."
Matt Wolckenhauer filed for unemployment last March but still has not collected any benefits. Wolckenhauer, a 1099 worker, says his state Department of Labor agent was confused because his pay stub showed a Maryland address. He says his employer was actually in New Jersey, as was all his income.
"I don't know what else I'm expected to do," he says. "Especially when you try to call and it just says, ‘call back tomorrow, call back tomorrow, call back tomorrow.'"
In November, Murphy insisted any widespread issues that had plagued the state's unemployment system early in the pandemic were no more.
"Literally every (delayed) case, it is a very particular reason to that individual," he said. "There's no broad systemic issue. The tsunami has quieted down."
But Kane In Your Corner still gets dozens of complaints a week from claimants struggling to file. Many say any problem with a claim, no matter how small, can be excruciatingly difficult to fix.
Consider the case of Victoria Venezia. In late June, furloughed for a few days, she filed a claim for one week of partial unemployment. She says she was entitled to $84 in state and $600 in federal benefits. Because she made a mistake while certifying, her benefit was reduced to zero and it took months to resolve. But then, when Venezia finally did receive her week of partial benefits in early December, she was wildly overpaid.
"When my husband looks in the bank account, he's like, ‘Oh, you got your money, except there's a problem'," Venezia says. "They'd sent us $11,556."
She's now spent nearly seven weeks trying to return the overage. Cellphone records show she's called the state Department of Labor as many as 42 times a day.
"I don’t want to just send a check because then the problem I have from that first week won't be rectified," Venezia says. At the same time, she says "I feel terrible because somebody needs that money, you know? There are people out there with no jobs that have not gotten their money and that's not right."
Department of Labor spokesperson Angela Delli-Santi says, “While a mistake may seem inconsequential or simple, it might be determinative on whether or not someone is eligible for unemployment benefits, and we are required by the federal government in most situations to conduct due diligence." She adds that "If a claimant disagrees with our determination, they have multiple levels of appeal."
There is good news for Jessica Santos. She tells Kane In Your Corner the state Department of Labor just informed her it will be depositing most of the money she's owed into her account in the next few days.