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Tens of thousands in N.J. to get extended unemployment benefits thanks to 1 woman | Opinion

Senator Joe Vitale, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez | November 17, 2020 | Star-Ledger |

If there is any doubt that any one of us can improve the lives of tens of thousands of her neighbors, Chrissy Ventre is living proof that one person can make all the difference.

Like so many others across our state, Chrissy’s husband was laid off in mid-March as the pandemic shut down businesses across New Jersey. He received 26 weeks of regular unemployment benefits and is now collecting 13 weeks of the federal unemployment benefits extension, all of which will exhaust on Nov. 14, leaving their family reliant on only Chrissy’s part-time income from her job as a child care provider.

Because federal law dictates that beneficiaries must have worked 20 weeks full-time during the base year of a claim or earned 40 times the unemployment weekly benefit rate, Chrissy believed that her husband was eligible for an additional 20 weeks of extended benefits. He had worked 21 weeks full-time but did not earn 40 times the weekly benefit rate.

Then Chrissy started seeing posts on Facebook that told her something very different: New Jersey law requires claimants to have worked 20 weeks full-time during the base year and to have earned at least 40 times their weekly benefit rate. The word “and” was going to be a problem for her family and for tens of thousands of other New Jerseyans whom our state would leave behind.

Rather than throw her hands in the air, Chrissy went to work. She contacted our legislative staff at the end of September after having researched the discrepancies in the relevant federal and state laws.

After hearing Chrissy’s story, we reached out to the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), which ultimately confirmed that New Jersey was no longer processing the extended benefits program in the most generous way possible. In fact, the state was now on the cusp of leaving tens of thousands of unemployed New Jerseyans in the worst possible situation – deprived of benefits right in time for the holidays, all because they could not meet both criteria when federal law only dictated that they meet either.

The OLS believes the increases in the minimum wage caused the problem. Forty times the weekly benefit rate at current minimum wage would force some residents to have worked 24 to 30 weeks fulltime during the base year, as opposed to just 20 weeks fulltime.

As Chrissy’s legislators, we could not allow her family, and so many others, to be left behind. More than 155,000 people initiated their unemployment claims the week of March 15, the same week as Chrissy’s husband. Those who have been continuously unemployed would currently see their benefits, including the 13-week federal extension, exhaust on Dec. 12.

We immediately introduced legislation (A4852) to remedy this situation by ensuring that New Jerseyans would no longer have to work 20 weeks full-time during the base year of a claim and earn 40 times the unemployment weekly benefit rate to receive an extra seven weeks of the federal benefit. Instead, they will be eligible for the additional benefit if they meet either metric.

There are over 6,000 New Jerseyans who have been denied extended benefits since June 28th, when the program was triggered during the pandemic. The state was in the process of manually evaluating them for seven weeks of additional benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. With this bill, the state will reevaluate to determine whether they are, instead, eligible for 20 weeks of extended benefits.

Tens of thousands of New Jerseyans will be helped because Chrissy Ventre identified a problem and took action to solve it. While we authored this legislation and anticipate that the governor will sign it into law, it is an infant room teacher who deserves the credit. In the midst of a global pandemic and in the wake of a divisive presidential campaign, it is heartening to know that one voice can make all the difference in the lives of so many.


Read the piece here.