My experience filing for unemployment

Colin Sumner, Business Manager

I am one of many Americans who ended up being laid off due to the coronavirus outbreak. I am extremely lucky that nearly all my essential needs are covered by my family. I, so far, have been physically healthy throughout this pandemic. But when this is all over, I won’t have any money. That’s not just  bad for me, it’s bad for the surrounding community too. Without young shoppers like me going out to eat at local restaurants and shopping, Westfield’s business and economy will take a hit. 

In addition, it will be bad for me next year when I go to college and don’t have money saved up. My savings, along with my investments in the stock market to Snapchat and AMC movie theaters are at an all time low According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of employees that are now at high risk of being laid off are teenagers. 

In the first week of March, I called the local restaurant I worked at as a host and busser and informed my boss that I couldn’t come in that upcoming weekend or any of the following weeks, not for a while at least. 

At work we were taking precautions: we were spraying and wiping down surfaces hourly and using Purell. Despite that, my mother and father made it clear that I would not be working until this  pandemic blew over. When talking with my peers at school I saw there was a common concern about going to work with everything going on. At the time, and even now, I feel that the concern was valid. 

On March 17, I received an email, and I’m sure you can guess what it said. A phrase many are now becoming familiar with is, “please know this was not an easy decision.” I’m not shaming any business, and while you can find many heartwarming stories of bosses taking out loans to pay their employees rather than firing them or laying them off, I don’t need that—it’s not realistic. There are programs in place that I pay into, and have been for years now that I can rely on—at least that’s what I assumed. 

Fast forward a couple of hours and I was on the NJ Department of Labor’s website trying to figure out how to file for unemployment. The system was operational, but a little slow. By March 21, I submitted my claim to the NJDOL, and on March 26, I called the office during the designated time slot. Because of the high volume of calls, the DOL set up time slots according to the last four digits of your social security number. When I called I was navigated through a system that suggested using their website and I proceeded to become frustrated and said , “representative.” Big mistake: a message played about how to find their website and then the call ended. 

On April 15 I was notified that my claim had been processed, and I apparently did not meet the minimum earning requirement. I was sent three letters in the mail about my claim, the letters didn’t say too much but they seemed to together create the big picture that I didn’t qualify. 

The whole process spoke volumes about how this country, and unfortunately how this state, treats low income and minimum wage earners. The website itself is confusing and, I believe, purposefully hard to navigate. I understand the system is not equipped for the current situation and it can’t be faulted for that but it shouldn’t be overly complicated and generally unappealing to use. The country relies on low income workers (as we’ve clearly seen) and if our government doesn’t start helping out more when things get tough, it will be a massive problem. 

Over the past four weeks a record number of unemployment claims have been filed within New Jersey. On average each week brought 180,000 unique applicants according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Many groups are trying to help those laid off due to the coronavirus. My boss directed me to two sites, the first one was the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which has a message on its application portal stating, “Due to an overwhelming response of 60,000 applicants to date, the Fund is not currently accepting new applications.” The second website I was directed to was for the Restaurant Strong Fund which only helped full-time employees. They’re still taking applications and you can apply on their website. 

Think about this: by the end of this week there will probably be over 5,500 people in this state alone who have died from the virus. And, by next week, at least 180,000 more people in New Jersey will file for unemployment. Filing for unemployment shouldn’t be difficult, and it shouldn’t be discriminatory. Everyone deserves help.