NJBIA's Public Policy Forum: The Road to Recovery REGISTER

New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo-Angelo provided some pretty straightforward answers to questions about unemployment benefits during a nearly hourlong webinar yesterday afternoon. To help relay the information quickly, this article will begin with short, direct answers to the questions NJBIA receives most frequently, with more detailed explanations later on in the article.

Additionally, a massive spike of unemployment claims and the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus have made it difficult for people to contact the department through phone or email. Asaro-Angelo urged those with questions to first consult the department’s online Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) for quicker answers.

Here are some key points Asaro-Angelo made:

  • Those who were among the first to file for unemployment during the pandemic will receive their regular unemployment benefit checks around the end of this week (April 10) if their applications were approved;
  • Independent workers need to file for regular unemployment and be denied in order to qualify for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program;
  • Employers who pay themselves a wage and have a W-2 are eligible for unemployment;
  • Employees who have their hours reduced can receive partial unemployment benefits for the lost work;
  • Everyone who qualifies for either regular unemployment or emergency unemployment will automatically receive an additional $600 in benefits; and
  • The $600 additional benefit payments should start going out to qualified workers April 14, but it will take a long time to get payments to everyone.

Timing of Benefit Payments

Asaro-Angelo said a typical unemployment claim takes three weeks to process under normal circumstances. So those who were among the first to be laid off and filed for unemployment when the pandemic first hit New Jersey have probably had their applications processed by now and should receive their payment by the end of the week.

Of course, the pandemic is far from normal, so processing times will probably take a lot longer going forward. The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DOL) has received 362,000 unemployment insurance (UI) claims in just two weeks. That’s a 1,600% increase in volume.

Additionally, the department, like many businesses in the state, has seen its productivity hampered by the social distancing restrictions and the need for DOL staff to work from home. Plus, about 50% of the applications need some sort of intervention from DOL staff to ensure eligibility and proper processing.

Nevertheless, the department is still processing tens of thousands of claims a day. “The system is working, claims are going through,” Asaro-Angelo said. 

Independent Workers

If you’re an independent contractor, sole proprietor, gig worker or self-employed, and your application for unemployment benefits has been denied, congratulations: You have just completed the first step to receiving the emergency unemployment benefits that Congress approved as part of the Coronavirus Assistance, Response and Economic Stability (CARES) Act.

What the next step is has yet to be determined. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA) is designed for those who do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits, hence the need to have a claim denied first. It’s also a federal government program, so the state has to run it according to the federal government’s guidelines. Those guidelines were just delivered at 10 p.m. Sunday night, Asaro-Angelo said.

Once the DOL staff has analyzed the guidance, and the department has decided how best to proceed, the next steps will be communicated to the public. NJBIA will add the information to its coronavirus resource page as soon as it is available, said NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka, who moderated the webinar.

“You’re going to get all of the money you’re eligible for,” Asaro-Angelo said. “It’s not going to be as fast as I want you to get it, there’s no doubt about that, but you will get it.”

Employers’ Eligibility for Unemployment

Employers who have a W-2 and pay themselves as part of the business can collect unemployment if they have lost income and qualify for the federal program.

There may be additional circumstances that may affect whether or not a business owner is approved or not, but the commissioner made it clear that business owners were not excluded from benefits simply because they are the owners.

“At this point, with the expansion, that person can apply and they will be eligible for something, whether it’s for the W-2 wages under normal circumstance or under the new expanded pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” he said. 

Partial Unemployment Benefits

Employees who are allowed to work but have had their hours reduced because of the pandemic can receive partial unemployment benefits through the state’s existing Work Share program.

Asaro-Angelo said unemployment will provide partial benefits for lost wages associated with a reduction of hours of at least 10% and up to 60% because of coronavirus.  In other words, an employee who has seen a 60% reduction in hours can receive 60% of the weekly unemployment benefit (subject to the usual benefit limits) while continuing to work and get paid for the remaining 40%. 

Additional Benefit Payments

In short, everyone who qualifies for unemployment from either the regular program or the PUA program will receive an additional $600 in benefits. That includes part-time workers, those receiving partial benefits, employers with W-2s, and independent workers. The amount is not subject to an employee’s income or the number of hours worked.

Asaro-Angelo said the payments under this program are separate from the other unemployment payments and will start going out April 14, but cautioned that not everyone is going to be paid at once. The department must first approve the regular unemployment application or PUA application before the additional payment can be made.