Filing for unemployment has become nearly impossible for New Jersey residents out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis. More than 718,000 residents filed for unemployment one month into the state's near-shutdown, flooding the state's 40-year-old system with applications.
Although New Jersey's department of labor implemented a series of improvements to help serve applicants faster, many residents say there's more to be done. In response to their frustration and anguish, Daily Voice has launched this series, "Workless New Jersey," where they can tell their stories.
This is the first installment. Scroll down to read the story of Hackensack's Vanessa Crosby, a substitute teacher who says slots for subs are "absent" on NJ's unemployment applications.
Applying for unemployment in New Jersey was simple for Vanessa Crosby when she was laid off from her job as as Paterson school counselor last June, she said.
But doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven a nightmare for 30-year-old Hackensack resident.
Crosby was nearly three months into her new stint as a substitute teacher in Bergenfield when schools closed last month, yet again, leaving her unemployed.
Part of the trouble for her now, she says, is that there's no slot for her position -- "substitute teacher" -- on the state's online unemployment application. Since she was approved for unemployment benefits last year after being laid off, Crosby is being told she's unable to apply for unemployment because she used up all of her 2019 funds.
"I've appealed and haven't heard back," she said. "It feels like I'm drowning."
Crosby has tried calling the numbers listed on the state's unemployment website but gets the same recording telling her to try back the next business day. She does. Again, and again, and again.
She received her $1,200 stimulus check, but bills continue to pile up, and Crosby doesn't know when her next paycheck will come or where the money will come from. She's frustrated and starting to lose hope.
"I understand there's an increased volume of applications -- I get it," Crosby told Daily Voice on Friday. "I just feel like there's no hope."
Crosby, who has her master's in school counseling, started off as a sub in Bergenfield in 2017. Two years later, she was hired as a counselor in Paterson. Then
She had been working in Paterson for four months when she was laid off last June, along with nearly 300 of her colleagues.
"I was paid through August and applied for unemployment," she said. "It was easy. I had those benefits September through December."
In January 2020, Crosby was rehired as a sub in Bergenfield. That was "going well," she said, until schools closed halfway through March.
Again without work, Crosby applied to positions in grocery stores, dollar stores and several others listed on the state's website that said they were hiring, despite being overqualified. A month went by and she didn't hear back from anywhere.
And again, she filed for unemployment.
"It’s a very odd category to be in for a sub getting unemployment," she said. "There's a slot for teachers, but not for subs.
"I had to send my appeal in the mail, the website kept saying I used up all of my claims," she added. "They had asked for my last pay stub, and the last one I had was from February. I sent that just for what it was about three weeks ago."
Since teachers are still being paid, Crosby thinks the website recognized her as a teacher working from home. She was told she's making enough money and denied further benefits.
Unsure of how to proceed, Crosby called the numbers listed for Bergen County residents. Every time she did, though, she got the same recording: "The system is overwhelmed. Try again on the next business day."
Phone lines were added and hundreds of laptops were recently distributed to employees of New Jersey’s Labor Department "so more staff could process claims and lend support from home," the department said.
Crosby even tried emailing the department of labor, but got an automated response saying if she tries again, that her claim will not be processed. She sent a letter in the mail, too. But is afraid to send another one.
"I’m still applying for school counseling jobs and other jobs," she said, "like working in dollar generals and other things listed."
Her concern, though, is that working will put herself -- and her parents -- at risk of contracting coronavirus.
"It’s a waiting game," she added. "I’ve been pinching all of my pennies and trying to stay positive."
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