The state is being swamped with applications for disaster unemployment assistance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Applicants such as West Wildwood resident Victoria Applegate said they have been stymied in filing because the Federal Emergency Management Acency’s phone and Internet systems have been overwhelmed by the demand.
“I tried to file every hour on the hour and it keeps bumping me out,” she said.
Applegate decided to file in person Wednesday by visiting the disaster recovery center in the basement of the Cape May County Library on Mechanic Street in Cape May Court House.
But the FEMA-operated center was closed because of Wednesday’s northeaster.
FEMA spokesman Chris Mckniff said the agency closed its disaster centers because it did not want storm victims to get stranded or placed in danger by yet another coastal storm.
“With the forecast, it was a preventive measure. We didn’t want people to be stuck at the center and then have to get back home or to a shelter. It was better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
Back-bay flooding from the hurricane filled Applegate’s ranch-style home with sea water. Her family lost most of its possessions.
The flooding has made it impossible for them to return home safely until the damage can be addressed, which could take many months.
Adding to her problems, when she evacuated the island she drove her car through rising floodwaters, which caused the engine to seize on the Garden State Parkway in Middle Township.
The towing service informed her it would cost $50 per day to store the car until it could be repaired, if the flooded vehicle’s engine could be repaired at all. Instead of paying the storage fees, Applegate signed the car’s title over to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
Since the storm, she and a 2-year-old child have been living with relatives.
Applegate returned to the disaster center Thursday near tears from frustration and fatigue.
“It’s been very stressful. I’m basically homeless living out of a suitcase,” she said. “FEMA offered housing assistance, but it was up in Egg Harbor Township. That’s 40 minutes away. I have to be here to make appointments for my home.”
Applegate works each summer for a pool company. In the off-season, she works part time as a bus aide for the Middle Township Board of Education.
“They’ve been very kind. They told me to take as much time as I needed to get through this,” she said.
Applegate is hardly alone.
The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development has received more than 10,000 unemployment insurance claims since last week’s storm, spokesman Brian Murray said.
Workers who were displaced from their jobs or could not reach their workplaces after the storm are eligible for special “disaster unemployment assistance” in southern New Jersey.
To file, workers must apply for normal unemployment assistance, Murray said.
But that has been a challenge. The agency’s re-employment call center (reached at 856-507-2340) informs callers that, “Due to the high volume of calls waiting, we cannot take your call at this time.”
Things are not much better on the Internet, which has crashed for many users, prompting the state to post a red warning at the top explaining the delays and recommending people try to file during the off-peak hours of 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“We have been impacted by Sandy, naturally, as were all operations in New Jersey,” Murray said.
“The storm’s impact on communications was compounded by some technical troubles that developed this week with the state’s computer/communications system. The troubles, which have occurred periodically this week, have slowed Internet access to the (unemployment insurance) system.”
Murray said the state has added staffing to its call centers to help process claims.
Typically, applicants will get paid through a debit card within 17 days of filing an Internet claim, he said. But the complications and volume of applications could delay the payments, he said.
“Because of the volume of new filings, the impact Sandy initially had on our communications and our ability to process ongoing claims, and now our computer issues, it will take a few additional days to process and make the first payment on a routine application,” he said.
Even self-employed workers can be eligible for assistance. Disaster unemployment assistance covers even minimal periods of lost working time, Murray said.
“For most people, if you lost two days of work or two weeks, it won’t matter. You will qualify for some form of compensation for those days,” he said.
That might come as a relief for workers such as Tami Renshaw, 44, a Galloway Township resident who works as a site coordinator for Providence Pediatric Medical Daycare, Inc., in Atlantic City. Like most businesses in Atlantic City, the daycare center was closed for about a week because of restricted access to the island after the storm.
Renshaw said she is counting on the assistance for the workweek she lost.
“I’m a single mom. It’s going to be very important,” she said. “I’m still waiting to see.”
After some difficulty, she filed a claim by computer last week but was not certain it went through properly.
“The application made me say I was laid off,” she said. “If the storm was a hardship for me, I can’t imagine what it’s been like for other people.”
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