Stephanie Martinez is one of the more than 1.78 million New Jerseyans who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The mother of four worked as a customer service representative for an insurance company. It was part-time, but she usually put in more than 30 hours a week, she said.
“I was on from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. but it was perfect so I could be here in the morning with the kids,” she said. “I was always the one who stayed late, like 2 or 3 in the morning. I was the one they called on the weekend if someone called out sick.”
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, her leukemia — known to her employers — and her compromised immune system put her at risk.
Martinez didn’t have a chance to decide it was too unsafe for her to work. Instead, she was furloughed on March 14. And now, 248 days later, she still hasn’t received a penny in unemployment benefits.
Her online account has said “pending” since April, she said, and she can’t get through to the Labor Department to find out why her claim seems to be stuck.
“I feel exhausted and tired and stressed,” Martinez said. “And I also feel like you start to second guess yourself. At one point I was frantic trying to reach them, thinking they needed something from me. Just tell me what we need to do.”
Martinez is one of hundreds of workers who have told NJ Advance Media they haven’t been able to get answers about their benefits for months.
Some people get stuck in the system for a long time, even if their benefits have been “pending,” because they have multiple red flags that need an adjudicator to make a determination, said Michele Evermore, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project.
She said there are times when different adjudicators are assigned different kinds of red flags.
“People who had multiple flags fell to the bottom of the pile because they have to be reached to have several flags cleared,” she said. “In some states a different adjudicator asks one question, but another adjudicator has to clear up another so you might get bounced from one inbox to another inbox so that takes a while.”
“Part of the problem is the agencies are short staffed and if they decide they want to call everyone who is waiting, that would take time away from processing the claims,” Evermore said.
NO STRANGER TO TOUGH TIMES
Before Martinez lost her job, she didn’t have an easy time of things.
She was diagnosed in September 2015 with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow, in September 2015.
At the time, she and her partner of 21 years and their four children were renting a duplex in Haddon Heights, and their two incomes helped make ends meet.
But with her treatments, Martinez had to stop working, and the family could no longer afford their rent.
While she was in the hospital undergoing treatments in February 2016, the family was evicted from their home, Martinez said. They also lost their car because they couldn’t afford to repair it.
Homeless, they moved into a short-term hotel and tried to put their financial life back together.
“We couldn’t keep up,” she said. “It was on my partner. He was trying to do as much as he could but life today is a two-person thing. We sunk.”
Her partner, who worked as a plumber, made a deal with an apartment building in Audubon. He would help with plumbing repairs for reduced rent and no money down.
They moved in the summer of 2016.
After two years of treatment, Martinez, 45, said she was able to return to work in October 2017. That’s when she got the customer service job she was furloughed from in March.
The family’s second income allowed them to rent a small house, and things were getting better.
But then, the pandemic.
QUALIFYING FOR BENEFITS
Martinez said she was called into her supervisor’s office on March 14.
“She explained that due to my leukemia, she stated I was to be furloughed. And that it was happening that very day,” Martinez said. “She explained that when it was safe, I would 100% have my job still available.”
Martinez said she headed home and filed for unemployment benefits on March 22.
“Part of the application was for my oncologist to fill out their portion and send that back,” she said. “That was sent in from my oncologist’s office via fax on March 22 to the unemployment office.”
On April 2, she said, her supervisor at work received a call from the Labor Department to confirm the furlough.
“(The supervisor) did, and before the end of that call, (the Labor representative) gave a verbal confirmation that I was approved and would be hearing from them shortly,” Martinez.
The next day, she said, she called unemployment multiple times “and the only thing I’d get was a message saying how busy they were and therefore couldn’t take any calls at that time.”
But later that month, her online account said her benefits were “pending.”
“I thought, awesome. I’m going to be hearing from them,” Martinez said.
According to the Labor Department website, a “pending” claim means, per federal law, an agent needs to review it. “This could take up to four weeks or longer due to the unprecedented volume of filings,” the website says.
Martinez said she understood there was a backlog, but she never questioned her eligibility. Her benefits would be based on a “base year” of between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019, according to the Labor Department website. During that time, she would have had to meet minimum earnings requirements: at least $200 per week during 20 or more weeks during the base year period, or at least $10,000 in earnings during the base year.
Martinez said she exceeded the earnings requirements for her base year.
But as the weeks and months passed, she didn’t hear anything. Martinez said she wasn’t very worried at first, but after a few weeks, she tried to get through to the Labor Department.
“Sometimes I would call multiple times a day to see if I could get anyone,” she said. “I would press random extensions and leave messages saying, ‘I know you’re not the right person but here’s my number.’ Nobody would call me back.”
She said nothing has changed since April, no matter how many times she called.
The family continues to struggle.
Through the summer, they were able to get food benefits through a SNAP Families First program. The first payment had back benefits, but the past two months have only been $99 per month.
Martinez said from the moment she was furloughed, her partner has been working as many as 80 hours a week to help the family pay their bills.
“He is killing himself. He won’t stop to eat most days,” Martinez said. “Even with him working this much, it’s not enough. Our bills are piling up. I just thank goodness they postponed shut off notices.”
It’s 248 days and she is still waiting for an answer.
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Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected].