Missing unemployment checks, scarce jobs for New Jerseyans in coronavirus economy

BY: Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent

Nutley resident Quincy Flood is one of more than 48,000 laid off workers whose unemployment claims — filed months ago with the New Jersey Department of Labor — remain unresolved. They’ve reapplied online, called the hotlines, emailed the contacts and begged officials for answers. And while the department’s processed 96% of 1.2 million eligible claimants, the rest feel forgotten and desperate.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare. I basically went through all my savings. My credit cards are maxed out. I’m worried about how I’m going to afford my next meal,” Flood said.

Summit attorney Nicholas Roth Hector says his family’s burning through their nest egg while waiting weeks for his claim to get processed. As New Jersey is moving slowly through the second phase of reopening, new hiring in April and May helped curtail the pace of jobless claims. But many businesses can operate only at partial capacity because of pandemic safety rules. And good jobs aren’t easy to find.

“It’s very stressful. I’ve tried to apply for jobs. I’ve probably submitted over 100 applications. And despite the fact that I’m both an engineer and an attorney, I’ve only received one interview,” he said.

Laid off telecommunications worker Shahid Mahmoud’s been waiting for a check since March.

“I cannot get the job. I cannot get the unemployment. I cannot get the stimulus check. For some reason, everything is jammed for me,” he said.

And while the state extended unemployment benefits another 20 weeks to help those still struggling to find work, people with unresolved claims get the same basic answer from New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo.

“We are mindful that some workers continue to wait for resolution of their cases, and we are making every effort to get them a determination quickly,” he said in a statment.

Mahmoud’s now living with his in-laws. He calls about his claim multiple times a day.

“People who got laid off after me, their cases are settled. Not mine so I know there’s something wrong. But what’s wrong, I cannot figure that out,” Mahmoud said.

Rutgers analyst James Hughes says the cultural and economic landscape’s been forever altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. He notes New Jersey’s still short 600,000 jobs lost to the lockdown. As for all the jobseekers, his new report sketches a bleak economic recovery that’s completely restructured by the pandemic.

“It’s been essentially gasoline on the fire accelerant, in terms of change,” Hughes said. “And people that are caught in that restructuring are the ones that are really feeling the pain.”

Hughes says regular retail’s suffered a meltdown, and that many former office employees will simply continue working from home. He predicts Zoom will partially eclipse the business convention and travel industries. Newark Liberty Airport’s dominant airline United announced it’ll slash half its national workforce by Oct. 1.

“That may be a threat rather than reality, looking for a bailout. But that’s a very, very real danger,” he said.

And even with a vaccine, Hughes says it’ll take several years before people feel comfortable returning to what will be a very different workplace.

“I’m not going to say, return to normal. Maybe it’s return to the new abnormal,” Hughes said.