“I feel like I’m the only one

residents sick and tired of slow

to start calling unemployment offices across north Jersey, just to hear the same deafening, monotonous recording every day, directing her to try again tomorrow.

Lynn Benduce tries to apply for unemployment online, but the 67 year old is told the Social Security number she’s had for decades is invalid. The anxiety triggers her atrial fibrillation, causing a rapid heartbeat. She’s scared a heart attack from stress will kill her, not coronavirus.

And between both of Madeline Morales Barrett’s checking accounts, she has barely $100. The Army veteran hasn’t received a paycheck since mid March, and needed the money to pay her bills this week.

The three women, all with different situations, have landed in the same limbo. Coronavirus hit, they were laid off at work, and now they need to file for unemployment for the first time.

But when asked to describe the process in one word, they have the same response: frustrating.

“I have to remain calm, and it’s hard. It’s upsetting. I can feel myself.,” her voice trailed off as she could be heard over the phone patting her chest. “It triggers me. And nobody seems to care.”

In the past four weeks, more than 718,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits in New Jersey after most non essential businesses were required to close. As the extent of the long term economic damage starts to show, the jobless rate is expected to increase, leaving the unemployment system crumbling under pressure.

CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES:

State officials have conceded the state’s unemployment system wasn’t made for this unprecedented avalanche of claims it’s running on a 40 year old mainframe, understaffed and, frankly, confusing for first time users.

“I feel it in the pit of my stomach for every worker’s claim we haven’t gotten to yet,” state Labor commissioner Robert Asaro Angelo said. “We are paying benefits to nearly 300,000 New Jerseyans, but that is of little consequence if your claim isn’t one of them.”

In an effort to ramp up the system, some technology was upgraded, hundreds of staffers received laptops to work from home and call center capacities increased, according to a state Department of Labor press release.

It’s unclear how many applications are backlogged in the system. Asaro Angelo has vowed everyone’s claims will be backdated to the first day of unemployment.

But as the enhancements go into effect, residents are fed up. Each day, stories of unemployment woes pour in by the dozens. A quick scroll through Facebook, and surely there’s a post on your local town page.

I am so unbelievably frustrated with NJ unemployment. I know they’re overloaded with work but it’s been three weeks since I’ve applied. I’ve sent emails call every day at least 80 times. Can’t even get on the site to claim benefits at my time because so many people are online. Most mornings, I cry. I’m up and trying to call at 7:30, and by 9:45, they’ve defeated me,” said Graham, a 29 year old who lost her job at an oral surgeon practice on March 15. She’s tried to apply for unemployment every day in the month since, but receives conflicting messages.

She received a confirmation number, but her claim is “unpayable.” It’s an error she can’t solve without calling the unemployment office, but the phone lines are as jammed as a radio station giving away free Bruce Springsteen tickets.

“It basically says, not right, call us.” It’s like, you’re not going to get anyone, but call us anyway!” she said, mocking the infuriating message.

## ## Gov. Phil Murphy, who vows that those having trouble filing for unemployment “won’t lose one penny” in benefits, has urged residents to call off hours, advice that hasn’t helped Graham.

“It says the centers aren’t open or agents aren’t available. I call every five minutes. I don’t know what the window of opportunity is,” she said.

Laid off from her job as a cashier at the Roxbury High School cafeteria, Benduce is also stuck with the same aggravation, reading the same message with no explanation as to how to fix the issue other than calling the unemployment office, which she says has proved to be impossible.

“It’s always a recording. We’ve called at least 300 times in total,” she said, noting she and her husband use both phones to call in shifts. “There’s never anybody available. It’s always ‘We have our allotment of calls today,’ and what am I supposed to do? I literally don’t know.”

She can’t sleep at night, dreading the headache she’ll have after hearing the phone ring for the thousandth time. And at the same time, the thought of contracting the virus looms in her head. Her cousin died of COVID 19, and her neighbors were taken away in ambulances last week.

“It feels like I’m losing my mind. It’s so above and beyond what I could ever imagine happening to me. I feel like I’m in hell right now,” she said. “I feel like I’m the only one.”

Madeline Morales Barrett, an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm, applied for unemployment after she lost her job at a Wayne medical office. She was approved for two weeks, but never received a check. And in the three weeks since, she received the same doomed message as Graham and Benduce.

“What’s the problem? What’s the deal? We did everything they asked us to do, and it’s an unending cycle. It’s ridiculous,” she said.

As a veteran, she said she thought the government would do more to care for vets. Although she doesn’t have a lot of money herself, she’s been helping disabled veterans by distributing donations and making sure everyone has food on the table.

Some of those veterans can’t file for unemployment either, she said. She’s sent several emails to Murphy and his team, but received automated responses.

“I’m frustrated. I served my country, I’ve been a resident for over 20 years, I pay my taxes, I do things for my community, and I can’t even get a response or a call back from an aide. What more do you want from me?” Morales Barrett said.

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