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News
Will thousands of "lingering" unemployment claims finally get paid?

Laid-off workers who have been waiting weeks to receive unemployment benefits because they have not been unable to reach a claims agent, are cautiously optimistic after an official said Thursday that 82,000 lingering claims will be paid next week without agent review.

In another hopeful move, a bipartisan bill to allow Civil Service workers from other departments to be temporarily assigned to process unemployment claims passed the Senate on Thursday. The bill is co-sponsored by State Senators Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, and Michael Testa, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, its primary sponsor is Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem.

About 1.1 million New Jerseyans have applied for unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 lockdown began in mid-March, and almost 711,000 were receiving benefits as of May 9, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Our department has been working for weeks with colleagues from other agencies and union representatives on lending staff to DOL,” N.J. Labor Department spokesperson Angela Delli-Santi said Friday. “We have asked for volunteer temporary reassignments rather than required transfers.”

Delli-Santi said the department does not comment on pending legislation, and did not answer questions about how many workers have volunteered for unemployment duty.

Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said Thursday at Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily COVID-19 press conference that emails will start going out Sunday to the 82,000 whose payments will be accelerated.

But some people, like single mom Lindsey McCabe, of Somers Point, are wary after waiting so long.

McCabe was featured in a May 4 Press of Atlantic City article about people whose claims were approved for specific amounts, but when they went on the state website to certify, they were told the claim “is not payable at this time.”

She had been laid off from her full-time job at a dentist’s office, and filed for benefits March 15.

McCabe said she got a call May 5 from an unemployment agent, who gave her his work email address and reassured her he was fixing her claim so she would get her current week and seven weeks of back benefits.

She emailed him documentation, and he promised to call her that night or the next day with the results.

But Friday, she said she never heard from him again, and he has not responded to her follow-up emails. She still has not received any payment.

“I worry now it was a scam,” McCabe said of unemployment claim’s agent’s call call.

Delli-Santi said Friday it was not a scam. She said McCabe can expect to receive seven back weeks of unemployment on Tuesday, with an additional $600 stimulus for each of the seven weeks. The stimulus should arrive a few days later, Delli-Santi said.

“(The agent), who is swamped, apologizes for not getting back to her. But, he did fix her claim,” Delli-Santi said.

The agent told McCabe the claim was held up because she gave a wrong answer in a certification form. She was truthful and said she was not actively seeking work, because she was going back to the job she already had.

Federal and state rules require people to say they are available for work and are actively seeking work in order to collect benefits.

Delli-Santi said filers should certify each week and follow the directions carefully on the website for how to answer the questions.

Once a mistake is made on a certification question, Social Security Number or other item, claimants have had to talk to agents. And thousands of people have reported that it is virtually impossible to get through to unemployment call centers, even after calling several times every day for weeks. The system is overloaded by historic levels of filers due to the pandemic, and its computer systems are decades old.

Thelma Pantella, 71, of Manuta in Gloucester County, said she gets the same “claim not payable at this time” message, since first filing March 22. She was laid off from a retail job because of the pandemic, and speculates in her first certification she may have answered the same question wrong that tripped up McCabe.

She is in better shape than some, because she collects Social Security, she said.

A state representative said Social Security payments do not affect unemployment benefits at all.

Delli-Santi said the idea of transferring staff to work on unemployment claims isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“It is important to note ... that we cannot simply transfer (volunteer or otherwise) staff, pluck them in front of a computer and make them claims agents,” Delli-Santi said. “Dealing with sensitive customer information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and work histories requires a state police background check. Unemployment law is complicated and nuanced; it requires experience to make claims determinations. And, finally, our computer systems are complex. Working on unemployment claims is not like logging in to Office 365.”

She said the recruited staff from other agencies “are to lend support and perform functions such as pin and password reset, gather information from claimants, and triage calls. This frees up more claims agents to handle complex claims issues that need their attention.”

Once a claim reaches the DOL payment data base, 93% of claimants receive benefits within two weeks.

“We remain empathetic to those whose claims are contested or are otherwise delayed,” Delli-Santi said. “A vast majority of those who filed in mid-March and are still waiting are independent contractors, whose claims are most likely being pushed through today and tomorrow.”

The department also has not yet answered questions about how many agents it has working on claims and how much it has beefed up its workforce, nor has it provided other hard data on how many workers are handling the crisis.


Education
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Stockton holds virtual graduation for class of 2020

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Instead of walking across the stage at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall to accept her diploma, Alay’ziah Haraksin was seated at her computer inside her home in Pleasantville.

There was no cap, no gown and no cheering from the stands as Haraksin closed out her senior year at Stockton University — the first in her family to graduate college.

“It was pretty depressing to know that we wouldn’t be able to walk across the stage. We worked hard,” said Haraksin, 22.

Like her fellow classmates, she participated Friday in Stockton’s virtual commencement — the first of two celebrations the college has developed to honor its graduates this year in light of closures due to COVID-19.

Many colleges have turned to virtual graduation ceremonies this spring, and some, including Stockton, have planned in-person ceremonies for a later date due to social-distancing guidelines. Rowan held its virtual ceremony last week.

Stockton’s ceremony included a recorded speech from college President Harvey Kesselman and congratulatory wishes from New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, several professors and a few students.

More than 2,000 students received bachelor’s degrees, and another 350 earned graduate degrees.

“Congratulations, Ospreys. You’ve reached an extraordinary milestone in your life. One that you’ve worked so hard to achieve, and one that should be recognized and celebrated. And while the manner in which we connect today is through technology, our bond has never been stronger as we commemorate this day,” Kesselman said.

During his remarks, Kesselman recognized the unprecedented situation the class of 2020, and the rest of the nation, find themselves in now.

“Yes, we’re living in the midst of unpredictable times, but let me assure you Ospreys, we have weathered life’s adversities before,” he said, “And we have emerged on the other side, stronger and sharper. And we will again.”

Graduate Marissa Luca, 21, of Mays Landing had planned a small celebration, including her favorite takeout food, with her boyfriend, with whom she lives. She planned to video chat with her parents, too.

Luca, who majored in communications, said she didn’t realize how important the commencement ceremony was to her until it was taken away.

“Honestly, I never really thought much about it. It was kind of one of those things that I thought, ‘I guess I’ll do it,’” she said of the ceremony. “It’s like this real lack of closure, lack of resolution. It feels like I’m pivoting into a new world without any sort of goodbye. ... It’s like you’re ending something midsentence.”

She hopes to get to the “real” graduation at some point, she said.

Haraksin, who earned her bachelor’s degree in education, celebrated with her parents at noon and was planning to surprise her mom, who is graduating this spring from Atlantic Cape Community College, with a special dinner in the evening. Atlantic Cape has not announced plans for a virtual ceremony.

Graduation Day for Haraksin also included an interview for a teaching job in the Pleasantville School District, where she recently finished her student teaching at the South Main Street School.

She said she learned from school closures this year to “be prepared for anything.”

She also wants to participate in any future in-person ceremony.

“It’s a big deal. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college, so I think that my mom deserves to see my walk across the stage,” Haraksin said.

Favad Akhtar, 26, of Brigantine, who earned a doctorate in physical therapy from Stockton, would have participated in the college’s graduate commencement held at the Galloway campus this spring, but that, too, was canceled.

Instead, he also took to the computer Friday to celebrate.

His family planned a “mini-graduation,” with Akhtar wearing some graduate regalia, including his cap and gown from his undergraduate ceremony in 2016, followed by a family dinner. He said he knows not having the in-person ceremony is difficult for everyone but that Stockton is trying its best under the circumstances.

“We’re not sure when, but I am totally for the idea of doing something to celebrate us, so I really appreciate it,” he said.

Luca said she is proud of her fellow students for how they have pulled through during a difficult time.

“It’s so weird, but there’s something nice about seeing how strong the people around you can be,” she said.

For a list of graduates, visit stockton.edu/commencement.


Local
Atlantic City 'incumbents' get Democratic county line in primary

A.C. ‘incumbents’ get Democratic county line in primary

{child_byline}DAVID DANZIS

Staff Writer

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Calling it the “hardest decision” he’s ever had to make, Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Michael Suleiman informed Atlantic City municipal candidates Thursday that the two incumbents will be awarded the party line in July’s primary.

Mayor Marty Small Sr. and 2nd Ward Councilwoman LaToya Dunston have been authorized to bracket with Democratic county candidates July 7.

Suleiman’s decision is in contrast to the endorsement of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee, which voted in April to support Pamela Thomas-Fields. The city committee endorsed Dunston over challenger Delmar Hamilton.

“Party politics aside, one of the most important things for Atlantic City as we grapple with the coronavirus and the dire economic impact of the casino closings is continuity in government,” Suleiman wrote to the candidates.

City Democratic Committee Chairwoman Gwendolyn Callaway-Lewis did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday.

Both Small and Dunston are in their respective positions as a result of former Mayor Frank Gilliam’s abrupt resignation in October following a guilty plea to wire fraud in federal court. Small, who was council president and 2nd Ward representative, was sworn in as mayor and Dunston was selected to fill his vacant seat.

The candidates for Atlantic City mayor and 2nd Ward council are seeking a one-year unexpired term that will run from Jan. 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2021.

The county chairman explained that elected officials serving unexpired terms have historically been treated as incumbents, and therefore are entitled to consideration when running for reelection.

“While I respect the input from Atlantic City’s municipal committee, which I deferred to in the 2018 and 2019 elections, the fact remains that regardless of what happens in the primary election this July and the general election this November, the voters of Atlantic City will once again go back to the polls next year to determine who will serve the full four-year terms for mayor and Ward 2 Council, respectively,” he said in the letter.

Suleiman went on to say that he would not insert himself into the primary and would “remain neutral.”

“I will obviously commit to supporting the winners of the primary, whoever they are, and doing everything I can to make sure they are victorious in November,” he said.

Small, Thomas-Fields and James Whitehead are seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor. Republican Thomas Forkin is running unopposed.

Dunston and Hamilton are the only two candidates seeking to represent the 2nd Ward.

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News
featured
LIVE UPDATES: Elective surgeries to begin later this month as NJ COVID-19 deaths top 10K

Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday elective surgeries and other invasive procedures can resume in the state this month.

The executive order goes into effect May 26, Murphy said.

“To be sure, this guidance will take into account the need to protect all patients from COVID-19, for providing PPE to staff, for prioritizing procedures and allowing visitors among other critical considerations,” Murphy said. “Allowing for these procedures to resume is a big step forward for public health.”

He also signed an executive order for procedures for the July 7 primary.

A limited number of in-person polling places will be available in each county, he said, and all registered Democratic and Republican voters will receive a postage-paid vote-by-mail ballot, while all unaffiliated or inactive voters will receive a ballot application.

“While many voters have seamlessly transitioned to voting by mail, we know there are other voters who prefer to cast their ballot in person, in addition to voters with disabilities who cannot fill out a vote by mail ballot,” Murphy said.

The number of positive cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey has increased by 1,297, bringing the total to 143,905, Murphy said. There have been 201 additional deaths, bringing the state total to 10,138.

There are 3,823 people hospitalized across the state, including 1,127 people in intensive care and 865 people on ventilators, Murphy said. Between 10 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. Thursday, 357 residents were discharged from hospitals, while 285 people entered hospitals.

In South Jersey, there were 97 new hospitalizations, Murphy said, with 105 discharges.

So far, Atlantic County has reported 1,678 cases with 107 deaths and 447 cleared as recovered. Cape May County has reported 487 cases with 40 deaths and 199 designated off quarantine. Cumberland County has reported 1,488 cases and 48 deaths.

Included in the totals are 27 new cases and three fatalities reported by Atlantic County officials Friday.

The three deaths were residents of long-term care facilities, according to the Atlantic County Division of Public Health. They include an 83-year-old Egg Harbor Township woman and two Hammonton residents, an 82-year-old man and an 84-year-old woman. All three individuals had underlying health conditions.

The new positives include 12 men, ages 31 to 87, and 15 women, ages 14 to 86, according to a news release from the county. Nine cases were confirmed in Pleasantville, seven in Northfield and four in Galloway; Atlantic City and Egg Harbor Township each had two new positives while Absecon, Hammonton and Margate each had one.

The county will be testing on Tuesday and Thursday at the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing for symptomatic county residents with a doctor’s prescription. Testing is conducted behind the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing. Appointments are available from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day and can be made online at www.aclink.org.

Residents should come prepared with their doctor’s script, proof of residency such as a driver’s license or utility bill, and their appointment confirmation. Those who are unable to keep their appointments are asked to cancel so others may have an opportunity to be tested.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Also during the briefing, Murphy said his administration is committing $50 million of federal CARES Act funding to support small businesses impacted by COVID-19.

“We know that many businesses have had real concerns about their ability to survive this pandemic, and we all fully appreciate and recognize those concerns,” Murphy said. “To the extent that we can use this federal funding to help our small businesses not just make it through but to see them thriving again as we continue our restart, we will take these steps.”

Atlantic City Electric is further extending its pandemic bill and service program. The programs include suspending service disconnections, waiving new late fees and reconnecting customers who were previously disconnected.

The policies will now be in place until at least July 1.

“We’re managing through difficult times with lots of uncertainty,” said Dave Velazquez, president and CEO of Pepco Holdings, which includes Atlantic City Electric. “By continuing these policies to keep energy service on and prevent additional fees, we want to provide our customers with a little more certainty in their lives. We want to make sure our customers have power and to offer support to those who may be struggling to make ends meet as we move through this crisis together.”

Customers who may be challenged in paying their bill should contact Atlantic City Electric Customer Care as soon as possible at 800-642-3780. As of May 15, the company has already established more than 833 customized payment arrangement plans helping customers manage the financial challenges of the pandemic. The company also has reconnected energy service for 139 customers where it was safe to do so.

Atlantic City Electric has extended customer support programs for all residential and small business customers and will continue to work with these customers to waive late payment fees, maintain energy service, discuss reconnections, and determine eligibility for assistance programs. Atlantic City Electric representatives can also discuss payment options, like Budget Billing, which averages payments over a 12-month period to help customers manage their monthly energy bill, or flexible payment arrangements that offer individually tailored payment installment plans.

Cash collections will resume at 6 a.m. on the Atlantic City Expressway, New Jersey Turnpike, and the Garden State Parkway on the morning of Tuesday.

Most tolls have been collected either by E-ZPass or by the temporary toll-by-mail process since March 24th when cash collections were suspended as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

Drivers who do not have E-ZPass accounts will need to be prepared to pay with cash once cash collections resume. Coin machines continue to be operational.

When toll collectors return to the booths, they will be wearing gloves and face masks. Drivers who intend to pay with cash are encouraged to wear face masks themselves as they travel through the toll lanes.

Ventnor officials announced that the city’s beaches will be open for swimming and sunbathing May 23, with the Boardwalk reopening May 29.

The Kathedral Event Center, in collaboration with the Eagle Theatre, have opened Karpool Cinema at Kathedral in Hammonton.

After Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 142 permitting car gatherings for the purpose of drive-in and drive-through events Wednesday, Karpool Cinema was up and running for an in-car only, outdoor movie showing of Toy Story 4, according to a news release. The first preview night was held to paying customers on Thursday, May 14 with more than 50 cars attending Toy Story 4.

Due to the initial preview night’s success, additional showings of Toy Story 4 have been added at a reduced opening weekend price of only $10 per carload 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, according to the release. Gates open at 8 p.m. In future weeks, a larger screen and other movies are being planned and will be announced soon.

“When Mayor DiDonato asked us to put this project together we were excited to give people from Hammonton and visitors the opportunity to do something fun and still follow good social distancing,” said Kevin Rodio, President of Spellcaster Productions and Kathedral Event Center.

This is a contactless event, according to the news release. Vehicles will be parked ten feet apart and guests must stay in their vehicles, but may roll down the windows and open their rear hatches.

No concession stand or restrooms are available at this time, but may be added in future weeks, according to the release. Tickets are available online only at www.kathedral.com and must be printed and presented upon arrival to gain entry.

Gov. Phil Murphy, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, and Delaware Gov. John Carney announced on Friday a multi-state agreement to reopen public and private beaches with certain restrictions in place effective, Friday, May 22. This approach will better align the states’ policies ahead of the summer months.

“A trip to the beach is a treasured past time for New Jerseyans on Memorial Day weekend just as it is for residents in our neighboring states,” said Murphy. “By aligning our social distancing policies for beaches, we can bring some semblance of a ‘new normal’ to our region ahead of the first weekend of the summer season.”

“With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching and warmer weather on the way, we want to make sure New Yorkers and residents of our neighboring states are able to safely enjoy outdoor recreational activities,” Cuomo said. “We have been coordinating with other states throughout this entire pandemic, and we have worked on an agreement allowing beaches to be open with proper social distancing and other public health protections in place so we can begin establishing a new normal without jeopardizing the progress we’ve already made.”

“Our beaches are some of our most beautiful and treasured assets,” said Lamont. “We want to make sure they are enjoyed up and down the East Coast in the safest possible way, especially as the Summer Season begins. Working together as states to make sure they can be enjoyed responsibly makes sense.”

“Summer at the beach is a huge part of life for so many Delawareans,” said Carney. “As we ease our way into a new normal, we’re trying to find ways for Delawareans to safely to enjoy the outdoors and the company of their families.”

North Wildwood beaches opened for sunbathing Friday.

Police asked residents to be aware of the social distancing rules.

Egg Harbor Township officials are reopening township parks and playgrounds Saturday.

Parks and playgrounds will be open, but there are restrictions included to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to a proclamation signed Thursday by Municipal Emergency Management Coordinator Michael Steinman.

Use of the facilities is at your own risk; no more than 10 people can use a court, field or playground at one time; social distancing of six feet applies; park visitors must wear cloth face coverings or more protective face coverings in any settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain; and visitors are asked to sanitize any surfaces that they or their children touch.

The facilities were closed March 19.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday night that he is ready to tighten social distancing restrictions if he sees a spike in COVID-19 cases.

“We are taking this one step at a time,” Murphy said during an interview on CNN. “…if we have to pull the breaks, we will do that.”

Wildwood Crest officials announced it will lift many of its beach restrictions as of 6 a.m. on Friday.

Wildwood Crest emergency management coordinator Ron Harwood has signed a proclamation that allows the public to sit and sunbathe on the beach beginning Friday, according to a news release. Swimming will also be permitted when lifeguards are on duty beginning Saturday, May 23.

Previously, only exercise such as running, jogging, walking, fishing and metal detecting had been permissible on Wildwood Crest beaches in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the latest Jersey Shore municipality to announce that restrictions would be lifted on beaches. Ocean City, Sea Isle City and Strathmere beaches also open this weekend for sunbathers. Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday that all beaches would be open by Memorial Day.

Social-distancing measures are still in effect in Wildwood Crest and should be utilized efficiently considering the relatively vast width of the beach, according to the release. Beach visitors must remain at least six feet apart, excluding family members, caretakers, household members or romantic partners. Groups should be limited to 10 or less people.

Masks are recommended but not required when safe social-distancing measures can be followed, officials said. Masks are required when coming into close contact with others or when social distancing is not practicable.

Organized beach games, contact activities and water play equipment are still prohibited at this time, officials said. Portable toilets will be available to the public at various points along the beach. They will be cleaned and sanitized regularly.

Smoking is permitted in designated areas of the back beach only when smoking stations are available.

For further information, contact the borough at 609-522-5176.

Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency and running mates Donna Pearson and Tracey Wells-Huggins on Friday unveiled a micro loan plan to rescue small businesses in Cumberland County struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you own a barber shop or nail salon or dry cleaners, this program is for you,” said Freeholder Jack Surrency, D-Bridgeton. “If you were put to the end of the line of the federal SBA program or never even got in line due to the lack of resources, this program is for you.”

The program, as proposed, would be called the “COVID-19 Small Business Emergency Stabilization Loan Fund,” based upon the model utilized by Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, according to a news release. The county would dedicate $5,000,000 for the fund.

Small businesses (up to 50 employees) in Cumberland County could apply for loans ranging from $5,000 to $35,000, according to the release. These funds may be used to cover day-to-day operating expenses such as payroll, rent, routine real estate and equipment financing, utilities or losses due to destabilizing events. Loans will be available with up to 10-year loan terms at an interest rate of 3%.

“This program can serve as a bridge for Cumberland County small businesses,” Donna Pearson, a former freeholder. “Access to financing, like this, will determine if these small businesses ever open their doors again.”

Under the program, the county will have the Cumberland County Improvement Authority (CCIA) administer the program in partnership with a local community bank, according to the release. The county will be active in all phases of the loan application and approval process.

“Small businesses are the heart and soul of our economy,” said Tracey Wells-Huggins, who is also a Registered Nurse. “We need to be there for them in their time of need.”

Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson announced Thursday that the federal government has approved the department’s plan to provide $248 million in special food assistance benefits to nearly 600,000 New Jersey children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals as part of the response to COVID-19 school closures.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure people throughout New Jersey have access to food assistance during this difficult time, especially children,” Johnson said. “Children should never go hungry, and approval of our plan is another step forward in our fight against hunger amid COVID-19.”

Under the plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, New Jersey special Pandemic-EBT benefits will be provided to recipients of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and non-SNAP households with children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals, according to a news release.

The plan will provide each eligible student with $416.10 to help with nutritional support during the time that schools have been closed during the pandemic, officials said. No application is necessary to receive this benefit.

Human Services is working with schools to identify students who were receiving free or reduced school meals, according to the release. Eligible students already participating in SNAP will receive the Pandemic-EBT on their household’s existing Families First card. All other Pandemic-EBT eligible households will be mailed a P-EBT card. Human Services expects these benefits to be issued no later than June.

“No child should go hungry, and this program will help ensure New Jersey children will get the nutrition they need,” Human Services Deputy Commissioner Elisa Neira said. “We’ve been working hard to boost access to food assistance during this difficult time. This is a crucial step toward meeting that goal.”

State officials scheduled a 1 p.m. briefing Friday to update residents on the spread of COVID-19.

Appearing for the briefing will be Governor Phil Murphy, Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, Department of Health Communicable Disease Service Medical Director Dr. Edward Lifshitz, and State Police Superintendent Colonel Patrick Callahan.

It will be livestreamed here.

So far, Atlantic County has reported 1,666 cases with 104 deaths and 447 cleared as recovered. Cape May County has reported 488 cases with 39 deaths and 199 designated off quarantine. Cumberland County has reported 1,475 cases and 47 deaths.

Source: State of New Jersey Department of Health

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Wondering which beaches and boardwalks are open in South Jersey? Here’s a list.

Wondering which beaches and boardwalks are open in South Jersey? Here's a list.