The Garden State is facing the most unprecedented unemployment catastrophe in history.

Over the past five weeks more than 850,000 New Jerseyans have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits because of the COVID-19 emergency.

The state Labor Department has distributed $1 billion in benefits to more than 550,000 workers since the start of the pandemic, but tens of thousands of people are still waiting and some haven’t even received confirmation their claim has been received.

“The major complaint that I am getting is that there is zero communication, there’s zero representatives,” said Michelle Izzi, the founder of the Facebook group NJ Unemployment Pandemic.

She said when people who have filed for unemployment weeks ago try get confirmation their claim is being processed, “there’s busy signals, there’s no way to email anybody, nobody responds. What are you guys doing? We want to know what are you doing. Feed us some sort of information.”

Robert Asaro-Angelo, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said everything possible is being done to move claims through as quickly as possible.

“Obviously, we know some workers have hit snags in applications, we’re working to fix those as quickly as possible, and we know these worker’s frustrations, but the system is working," he said.

Asaro-Angelo said hundreds of employees from other departments are assisting in answering unemployment claims questions and helping to process those claims but people need to understand there has been a 1,600-percent increase in unemployment claims over the past five weeks.

He said he feels terrible for people who are still waiting but the overwhelming majority of folks are having no problems.

“Percentages are the same as they were four months ago but when you talk about the raw numbers and the denominator going from a few tens of thousands to approaching a million. The raw numbers of folks having problems now is very large," he said, adding that communication was ramped up. “For example, we’ve sent helpful online resources to everybody who has emailed us. More than 127,000 people have already used our new intelligent automated email system.”

He said many questions people are calling could be resolved if they read the information on the Labor website about how the process works, but there are also people who do need to speak with someone about their specific claim.

He said if someone is waiting four or five weeks for a reply, “that’s very, very unusual.”

Izzi pointed out part of the problem is the Labor Department is using a very old computer system.

“That’s just completely unacceptable. I mean the amount of money in taxes that we pay in the state of New Jersey, there should be an updated system," she said.

She said the governor has ordered everyone to stay home, which means she is unable to earn money to put food on the table, so the unemployment system must be streamlined and accelerated. She also suggested speeding up the federal supplemental unemployment insurance benefit.

“Give everyone $600 right now, regardless what your unemployment benefit will be," she said.

Asaro-Angelo said the unemployment insurance claim process involves in-depth sometimes complicated questions but “they’re really safeguards to protect people’s identity, to protect their bank accounts.”

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He said some people are getting notices their claims cannot be processed but “that’s because they’re answering one of the seven screening questions wrong. I highly encourage everyone to click on the so-called cheat-sheet pop-up box on the website that describes the questions, what they mean, and what the answers to the questions mean.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com