When natural disaster strikes New Jersey, the Federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program provides unemployment benefits to individuals who live or work in affected areas of New Jersey and become unemployed as a result of the damage. The process begins with the Governor making a request to the Department for Labor to make the benefits available to individuals in qualifying counties of the state. Upon approval by the DOL, individuals who do not qualify for regular unemployment insurance may obtain those benefits through the program. After the initial approval by the DOL, the U. S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may approve additional counties for the special benefits program. Prior to Hurricane Sandy, the benefits were last made available after Hurricane Irene in 2011. 

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the DOL has approved Governor Chris Christie’s request to allow Federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance for New Jersey residents who cannot work as a result of the storm. On November 1, 2012, the DOL approved the benefits for qualifying residents of eight counties declared disaster areas, including Atlantic, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Union. However, the following day, November 2, FEMA announced it had approved Governor Christie’s request to add two counties, Bergen and Somerset, to those that qualify for the benefits. Additional counties may be added to the program in the coming days as government officials continue their damage assessments. The State press release contains the pertinent information on applying for the assistance.

The special assistance program makes unemployment benefits available for individuals who were living or working in those counties but who lost their job or who are no longer working as a direct result of storm damage.  The benefits also are available to those who were self-employed. After Hurricane Irene, the Disaster Unemployment Assistance benefits were announced as unemployment insurance benefits only. In addition, to meet the requirement of unemployment as a “direct result of a major disaster” the individual must not be working or have lost his or her job, the principle source of income, as an “immediate result” of the disaster. The State of New Jersey Disaster Unemployment Assistance page contains a helpful FAQ.

An “immediate result” of the disaster includes one of the following: 1) damage or destruction of the individual’s workplace or place of self-employment; 2) the loss of a majority of income or revenue from a business that was damaged or destroyed or was located in a disaster area closed by the government; or 3) the place of employment was inaccessible because it was in a location closed by the government as a result of the storm. 

Employees also can qualify for the benefits if they live in, work in, or travel through the disaster area, they suffered injury or incapacitation, their place of employment was destroyed, damaged, or closed, they were scheduled to start a new job, but that job no longer exists or cannot be reached, or they became the breadwinner or major wage earner of the household due to the storm-related death of the head of household.

Thus, from a practical standpoint, even if an employer has kept its place of business closed, but employees are not losing their jobs as a direct result of the storm, the employees likely would still be able to apply for the Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program for the time they cannot work. However, because these are unemployment insurance benefits, the employee would be applying for the benefits only for the time they are actually unemployed, and would have to apply first for regular unemployment benefits for the time they are out of work. Employers should advise their employees to apply online for regular unemployment first, at www.njuifile.net. If the employees do not qualify for unemployment, they then may apply for the Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program benefits while they are out of work. Employees must apply for these special assistance benefits by the 30-day deadline ending December 3, 2012. The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development has set up a full Hurricane Sandy Help Center.