Team 12 Investigates: New Jersey residents waiting for months for unemployment benefits
Nearly two years into the pandemic and New Jersey's unemployment remains higher than the rest of the country with some residents angry because they have been waiting months for benefits.
Tom Wighard says he hasn't received unemployment benefits since February.
"Nothing ever happens. There's no money. Why?" says Wighard. "I want my money."
The New Jersey Department of Labor told Wighard his claim would automatically be extended for six months, but instead, for 26 weeks he has been told that his claim is not payable at this time.
Wighard says he would get a call from the department every Monday but as the months dragged on, he started recording the conversations.
"I would talk to somebody, and they said, 'well it's not payable, it's in review,'" says Wighard.
Wighard has been waiting so long that the automatic six-month extension he was supposed to get ran out four months ago and he's not the only one having a problem.
Joe Coley has spent six months waiting for benefits. The delay has taken its toll on him and his family.
"We downsized, we moved out of an apartment," says Coley. "And we're in a mobile home now. So, the rent is much cheaper than it was before. So, it's difficult."
In a series of investigations, Kane in Your Corner exposed how the Department of Labor's ancient computer system melted down under the weight of COVID-related claims. Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents have been waiting months for money.
Team 12 Investigates also found the state ignored decades of warnings. The Department of Labor proposed replacing its unemployment computers back in 2003 but funding was never approved.
The Murphy administration insists things are getting better.
"We put several, $8 to $10 million in the budget for computer upgrades at DOL and that's in the process," says Gov. Phil Murphy.
While New Jersey tries to improve a 40-year-old system, other states are building new ones. Connecticut is in the process of implementing new technology and New York awarded a $57 million contract for an unemployment solution, but work wasn't finished when COVID hit.
A recent report from the New Jersey Office of Technology confirms what Team 12 investigates found. Among the state's critical needs is the replacement or modernization of several old computer systems, including the one at the Department of Labor.
Team 12 investigates asked Gov. Murphy why his administration hasn't done more.
He responded saying, "There's only so much we can do as a state, given the state of the federal system. That needs to get renovated, brought to a whole different place. Otherwise, if we throw more than what we're throwing at it, it's good money after bad."
As for Wighard, he got some good news after Team 12 asked about his case. The Department of Labor emailed him saying that he'll have $17,000 of benefits in his account within two days.
New Jersey is one of two states taking part in a pilot program to help improve the federal unemployment system. Gov. Murphy says he believes that will also improve things here in New Jersey.
Anyone having trouble with unemployment should keep certifying weekly, and if a payment is marked not payable, contact the department to find out why. Getting a state lawmaker involved may also help.
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