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Iraq War widow has been waiting 103 days for her unemployment benefits

In 2017, Lynn Smith transferred a kiss to a plaque honoring her husband, who was killed in Iraq on July 17, 2006. The plaque was placed on Building 91 at Picatinny Arsenal, which was renamed the Sergeant First Class Scott Smith Building. (Jim Pathe | The Star-Ledger/TNS)

Lynn Smith is among the many thousands of New Jerseyans who have been waiting to hear from the Department of Labor on an unemployment claim.

She’s waited since March 22 — 103 days — to learn if she’s eligible for benefits.

Hard times are nothing new for Smith.

When she was 26 years old, her first husband, Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith, a bomb-squad technician, was killed in Iraq in 2006 when he stepped on a pressure-triggered explosive device that was buried in the ground. He was 34.

She learned that some of her husband’s body parts were “cremated along with the rest of the medical waste from the hospital and thrown in the trash” and dumped at a landfill in Virginia, The Star-Ledger reported at the time. The incident led to several investigations by The Washington Post, which found remains of military personnel, including Smith’s husband, were cremated, incinerated and disposed of at the landfill between 2004 and 2008.

She tried to move on with her life. She remarried 13 years ago and has three children, 10, 8 and 3.

But challenges remained.

Her youngest child was born with a rare, life-threatening scoliosis. He needs several surgeries to correct his spine, and the first will cost Smith a minimum of $65,000 out-of-pocket, she said.

Smith said she’s grateful that her current husband is still working so they have insurance and some income, but unemployment benefits would make a big difference to the family, she said.

That’s where it gets complicated. Her work history is causing the issues with her current unemployment claim.

Smith worked several Defense Department jobs, but she said her involvement in her first husband’s case led to retaliation. She won a wrongful termination suit against the department, was awarded five years of back pay and was reinstated in her position. But the government appealed and Smith’s case, and thousands of others, have been in limbo for three years because the board can’t operate until the Senate votes on new members.

She was able to restart her job at Picatinny Arsenal, but, she said, the retaliation continued.

“I had been moved approximately four times in a matter of a few weeks,” she said. “I received a letter at my desk with a picture of a rat inside the envelope.”

In 2018, Smith fell at work and was diagnosed with a concussion and went on workers compensation. While she was recovering from the concussion, in October 2018, she was diagnosed with cancer and needed surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

When her workers compensation benefits ended, Smith said, she wasn’t allowed to work from home during her treatment.

“The government offered a package for me to leave and I accepted it,” she said, noting she was told to file for unemployment benefits. “I was so stressed and emotionally worn I had no option but to leave and focus on my health.”

She applied for unemployment in December 2018.

“They continued to lose my paperwork and I eventually gave up. I began chemotherapy and radiation in February 2019 and was very sick,” she said. “I was unable to work for about a year.”

By January 2020, Smith said, she was well enough to get back to work. She started taking college classes while looking for a job. And then the coronavirus hit, making the job search near impossible. Even if she found a job, working out of the home could have been dangerous for the health of Smith and her son, she said. And someone would have to take care of her kids when school was canceled.

Smith applied for unemployment again on March 22, and she submitted additional documentation on April 8.

She said she has sent emails, regular mail and even registered mail to the Labor Department to try to get a response.

“When I attempt to certify for weekly benefits it says I’m not accessing it at my scheduled time despite that not being true,” she said. “I have repeatedly called and have not been able to get through.”

Smith says even if she doesn’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, she should qualify for the federal benefits that include payments if you’re unemployed because of the virus.

“I shouldn’t be sitting for three-plus months now without any answer,” she said

Smith said she had a small nest egg, but that quickly dwindled during her cancer. She and her husband have missed mortgage payments and they’ve been hit with unexpected bills for car repairs and other costs.

“My entire savings has been chewed up. We are trying to stay afloat,” she said.

There’s no doubt that Smith’s case is one of the more complicated ones that Labor needs to examine, and she certainly needed to speak to an agent.

“I have been unable to certify for weekly benefits, have not had my benefit eligibility decision, and I have sent all documents and required information,” Smith said. “At minimum, I should have received the decision.”

Before this story was published, NJ Advance Media alerted the Labor Department that we were looking at Smith’s case. Several hours later, Smith received a phone call from an agent.

The agent said workers compensation doesn’t count as wages so Smith didn’t qualify for regular unemployment, but she could get the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Her case was escalated to a supervisor, she said, and it was determined that she would get 14 weeks of back benefits with the $231 minimum payment plus the $600 federal benefit.

“She said I shouldn’t have any issues now with certifying either,” Smith said. “It won’t be as much as I hoped but it is something and will definitely help me tremendously.”

Success after 103 days. We’ll take it.


© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group