When Caroline Sharp’s unemployment benefits suddenly stopped without explanation June 12, after just three weeks of receiving them, the Little Egg Harbor Township resident began calling state unemployment offices every day.

She finally got through to a human being in mid-July, rather than a recording, and chalked it up to divine intervention.

“I had literally been down on my hands and knees praying,” the former dental hygienist said. “I was so broken down. When the phone rang and the prompts were different, I thought I had gone to heaven.”

The problem was, the unemployment worker she reached could identify what was holding up her money but could not fix the situation.

Sharp’s payments were linked to an old claim from the previous year that had run out of funds, rather than to her April filing.

It is unclear why she didn’t automatically receive an extension of benefits from the old claim, since the federal government is providing 13 extra weeks and the state is providing 20 extra weeks.

The worker told Sharp someone who could help would call her within 10 business days, but no one has called, Sharp said.

“All my bills are past due. It’s stressful,” Sharp said.

Sharp is one of many people who have said some of the people working for unemployment appear to be untrained for handling the complex problems that are holding up payments for so many.

“Our call center staff are trained, but they cannot answer every question or fix every claim,” said state Labor Department spokesperson Angela Delli-Santi. “Some must be escalated to the most experienced agents for review and determination.”

It is a particularly painful problem in Atlantic County, which had the highest unemployment rate of any metro area in the country in June at 34.3%, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week.

It also had the largest over-the-year unemployment rate increase, up 29.9 percentage points over June 2019.

“There are still far too many families waiting for their benefits, which is completely unacceptable,” said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic.

His office has tried to help about 2,500 families get their benefits since March, Brown said.

“We are still averaging about 25 new cases per day,” he said.

The DOL has stressed that 96% of 1.25 million people who have claimed benefits have been paid. But 1.44 million New Jersey workers have filed for unemployment benefits, and the DOL has not answered questions about the 190,000 people who have filed but not been able to claim benefits.

It has not provided data requested on how many of them have been determined to be ineligible, and how many are waiting to talk to an agent in the process of becoming eligible.

Brown said the Labor Department has been somewhat more responsive to his office in the last month.

“Since Labor brought back some retired employees to handle the caseload, there has been a small improvement,” Brown said. “Previously, the Labor Department didn’t send us any responses. Now we receive about 10 replies per day.”

But, he said, many times the answer does nothing to address the problem; it just reiterates the rules.

“They have had all this time to train people, and with this many people without benefits for this long who were forced out of work by government in the first place, to deny them benefits they are entitled to is unacceptable,” Brown said. “It’s heartbreaking to see so many families not getting straight answers and continuing week after week without their benefit.”

Ziggy Gallegos, 42, of Egg Harbor Township, has been unemployed since losing his job in March. He applied for unemployment benefits April 5 but has received nothing yet.

He, too, said when he finally got through to a call center, he was told the center could only take his information and that a specialist would call him in five to 10 days.

But it has been almost a month without a call, Gallegos said.

Delli-Santi said agents call claimants back on time, but claimants don’t always answer their phones.

“The number will either come up NJ Unemployment, blocked or unknown,” Delli-Santi said. “Even when people are waiting for a call back, a significant number are not answering the phone. We try three times on separate occasions.”

Writer and digital marketing professional Allison Riney, who moved to Philadelphia recently from Ocean City, wasn’t put out of work by the new coronavirus. But she did get sick from it, and while not hospitalized, “it was a pretty rough three weeks.”

She had lost a job prior to the shutdown, but the health crisis has made it impossible to find another, she said.

Riney said she was notified by New Jersey DOL she qualified for an extension of benefits, since her unemployment had run out within months of the pandemic hitting. It was welcome news, as she was living on her savings.

She was approved for the extension as of June 2, but about three weeks ago when she went to certify, it said there was no claim on file.

“I have been calling and doing that first thing in the morning. On a side note, it’s the worst way to start your day,” Riney said. “It kills your hope.”

She has called repeatedly and emailed, with no luck.

“You’d think they’d have a mechanism to make sure people can get the money,” Riney said. “It’s scary not knowing what’s going on and knowing the state of New Jersey seems to be minimizing this.”

Contact: 609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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