With hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans seeking unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic and many still waiting — sometimes for six weeks or more — to actually get paid, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday night the state expects to “be through the backlog” early next week.
Murphy made the comments on his television show, “Ask the Governor,” during which he was peppered with questions from frustrated and angry viewers about unemployment seven weeks into his orders for residents to stay home and nonessential businesses to close to fight the virus.
One viewer asked why Murphy has not shown “personal interest” in people struggling to obtain their benefits.
The governor stressed that the state is dealing with a record number of claims and has expanded staffing and added more laptops to help process them.
“I don’t want folks to think we’re not paying attention,” Murphy said during the show on News 12 New Jersey. “This has been an overwhelming avalanche.”
“It’s not gonna make you feel any better. But that’s a reality,” he added. “One of the questions implied that I wasn’t paying any personal attention to it. That isn’t true. We’ve thrown gobs of resources against this. … We are chopping through it.”
Murphy also stressed that people will not “lose one penny that’s coming to you.” He said that includes $600 a week the federal government approved on top of state unemployment benefits.
Murphy was asked by NJ Advance Media at his daily press briefing Wednesday why some workers who have started to receive regular unemployment benefits have not yet seen the $600 benefit, and why some got one $600 payment weeks ago but haven’t seen it since. He said his office would get back to reporters.
Meanwhile, Murphy said the state will implement a 13-week extension for those who have exhausted unemployment benefits “as soon as we can.”
And asked why the state can’t extend the hours in which labor department employees help field calls and process claims, Murphy stressed that those employees also “have lives” to tend to during the pandemic.
“They’ve got kids doing homeschooling and remote learning,” the governor said. “They’ve got people in their families who are sick. This is not a normal reality we’re dealing with here.”
“On both ends of the phone line, people are up against it. And we get it,” he added. “Based on what I’m seeing, we’re doing everything we can.”
New Jersey has been hit with the second-most COVID-19 cases and deaths among American states. As of Wednesday, state officials reported at least 8,549 deaths attributed to the virus and at least 131,890 cases overall.
Meanwhile, 930,000 workers in the state filed unemployment claims between mid-March and April 25. New numbers are expected to be released Thursday.
After allowing parks and golf courses to reopen last weekend, Murphy has not given a specific timetable for when he will further lift his restrictions on residents and businesses. But he said Wednesday he’s considering allowing more businesses to reopen for either curbside service or with other social-distancing guidelines.
Some lawmakers and business leaders have been pushing Murphy to do so as the number of daily cases and hospitalizations continue to drop.
But the governor has insisted the state has to reopen responsibly to make sure cases and deaths don’t surge again. He has formed a commission to come up with a reopening plan and said the state first needs to see cases and hospitalizations continue to drop, as well as institute more widespread testing and programs for contact tracing and isolation.
NJ Advance Media staff writer Karin Price Mueller contributed to this report.