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Workless NJ: Ex-Bakery Manager Among Thousands Of Unemployed Wondering 'When?'

Jenn Polizzano-Demaria with her daughter, Sophia
Jenn Polizzano-Demaria with her daughter, Sophia Photo Credit: Provided

Every morning, Jenn Polizzano-Demaria of Hawthorne wakes up and hopes for answers.

Formerly the director of operations for Mr. Cupcakes, Demaria applied for unemployment benefits with the state's labor department late last month. 

Nearly four weeks later, she doesn't know if she's been approved -- and couldn't begin to guess when she'll find out.

She's not alone.

New Jersey has paid about $1 billion in unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 outbreak began in March, the NJ Department of Labor and Worksforce said Thursday. 

The payments went to some 556,000 residents -- a 560% increase since last year, according to the state's labor department.

New Jersey workers collecting unemployment received their second $600 supplemental weekly benefit deposited in their accounts. Demaria wonders if or when she will ever get hers.

"I've called every day for 12 days," she said. "Fifty to 100 times daily. "I still have had no official word if I was approved [for unemployment]."

When public schools closed on March 18, Demaria had no choice but to bring her 10-year-old daughter with her to work at Mr. Cupcakes' Paramus Mall store.

When the shop closed along with the mall last month, Demaria moved to working at the Mr. Cupcakes Hawthorne locations -- which remains open, along with the Clifton location.

When Demaria's husband's elderly godfather was hospitalized with the virus, she self-quarantined with her family at their Passaic County home. Unable to go work, Demaria found herself unemployed.

Thousands of New Jersey residents filing for unemployment complain of making countless calls just to get the same basic answers from the state's labor department.

Demaria says she's one of them.

When she calls the labor department's North Jersey unemployment line, it usually says, "Call volume too high,'' and then she gets disconnected, Demaria said.

This week, she tried claiming again during her weekly scheduled appointment only to get an automated message: "Not payable at this time."

Then, she tried emailing. No response, she said.

The department has upgraded its technology, delivered laptops so employees can process applications from home, and expanded its call center capacity to manage the high demand.

On a radio program Thursday night, Gov. Phil Murphy assured residents they will get all of their unemployment benefits.

"Know that we will get it to you, but it is still an overwhelming challenge,'' he said. "You'll not lose one penny of that unemployment benefit including the federal $600."

But Demaria says that begs the question: "When?"

"I don't mind waiting for money,'' she said. "I just want to know the status."

There has been an upside to staying at home, Demaria said. Home-schooling with her daughter, Sophia, who attends Roosevelt Elementary School.

"It's a tough routine to get used to. I love my job," Demaria said. "But I enjoy being home with my daughter."

Also on the bright side, Demaria received a federal stimulus check on April 15: "It's pretty much gone,'' she said.

Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo maintains his department's top priority "has always been to get benefits into the wallets of everyone who deserves them as quickly as possible," he said.

“We are working diligently on getting federal benefits to independent contractors, freelancers and self-employed workers whose incomes have dried up due to COVID-19, and continuing to reduce the number of claims requiring an agent review, so we can pay those workers quickly without running afoul of U.S. Department of Labor requirements.” 

The department's website has been "the worst experience," but calling isn't any better, Sakinah Collier of Newark said.

"It definitely has been difficult to get through to anyone," Collier said. "Going online has been the worst experience and calling is even worse. No one never answers."

"Its been about a month or so for me also and still no checks yet. This is terrible for the state of New Jersey," Collier added. "I hope it gets better instead of worse."

Filing for unemployment has become nearly impossible for New Jersey residents out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis. More than 858,000 workers have filed for unemployment since March 15, 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.

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