NJ unemployment system wants DC to help

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The head of the state agency that manages unemployment benefits told lawmakers that over the past year staffing has tripled and technology improved, all in a bid to respond to a crash history of unemployment claims that millions of New Jersey residents filed during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the persistent arrears and other challenges residents have often loudly complained about are also caused by an outdated federal unemployment system, said Robert Asaro-Angelo, the commissioner of the State Department of Labor and Employment. Workforce Development, at a budget hearing Wednesday.

So even though the state has worked to improve its own treatment of unemployment benefits since the onset of the health crisis, it will take federal reform to really turn things around, he told members of the budget committee. of the Assembly.

This is not a situation for which no state – regardless of the level of funding or the modernity of its resources – could have prepared itself. And it is clear that challenges continue to exist here and across the country, ”said Asaro-Angelo.

“The federal unemployment system is outdated and certainly ill-equipped to deal with an emergency,” he said.

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State agencies are subject to scrutiny by lawmakers

Asaro-Angelo was the last senior official in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to appear before lawmakers reviewing the governor’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

This week’s budget hearings are forcing lawmakers to review the operations of some of the state’s most forward-looking agencies, including those that have been most tested by the pandemic. They included the Motor Vehicle Commission and New Jersey Transit on Monday, and the Departments of Health and Labor and Workforce Development on Wednesday.

Budget hearings will continue on Thursday with the departments of community affairs and military and veterans affairs being questioned by lawmakers.

New Jersey’s unemployment system has been crushed with more than 2 million claims for benefits filed amid the pandemic, which began more than a year ago. But like the MVC, residents and lawmakers have questioned the state’s management of basic services, such as the handling of unemployment claims by the Department of Labor.

As Asaro-Angelo acknowledged that “the challenges continue,” he praised his ministry for distributing more than $ 26 billion to unemployed residents over the past year, even as federal rules were changed. more than 20 times.

Asaro-Angelo also said New Jersey has emerged as a national leader in several areas, including automating the renewal of benefits for someone after a year of unemployment, which helps over a million New Jersey claimants. .

“If we had not created this new process, our call volume would have increased by tens of thousands every week, as benefits were interrupted by the review process required by the federal government, which had been manual,” did he declare.

Launch of the unemployment chatbot

Other improvements that have been made over the past year include the addition of additional staff to process claims, from approximately 500 to 1,500, and the establishment of a “chatbot” on the web. ministry website.

“Our goal has always been to prioritize the actions that bring the most relief to the greatest number of eligible workers in the shortest possible time,” said Asaro-Angelo.

Yet the technology used to process unemployment benefits in New Jersey has already been identified as a concern, and lawmakers and past administrations did not fully address the issue until the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic began.

Murphy’s FY2022 budget proposal calls for using $ 7.8 million to improve the unemployment system. However, lawmakers have proposed sending the agency a total of $ 50 million in more immediate funding.

Asked at the hearing about whether his department could use the larger appropriations, Asaro-Angelo thanked lawmakers for their interest, but said it “almost made no sense” to deploy more funding from. state when a broader federal solution was needed. This echoes remarks made several months ago by Murphy, who also pleaded for federal aid, which has bristled some lawmakers.

“We are very comfortable with that amount for this coming fiscal year,” Asaro-Angelo said when pressed on the issue of funding at the hearing.

But assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) later raised concerns about relying too heavily on action taken in Washington, DC, which is known for its political blockade.

“If we wait for the ‘system’ across the country to be fixed, we’re just going to wait indefinitely,” Bergen said. “I hate to see us in a state of ‘analysis paralysis’.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers have also expressed concerns about relying too heavily on technology to deliver services, instead of having someone available to deal directly with residents who have lost their jobs. It’s a recurring theme in recent budget hearings with officials from other agencies, including with issues ranging from renewing driver’s licenses to getting an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination.

The frustrations remain

Several lawmakers said during Wednesday’s hearing that residents are still frustrated that they cannot connect directly with a ministry employee when they apply for unemployment benefits. Instead, many turn to their respective legislative district offices for one-on-one help, including those who are not technologically savvy.

“It’s always very, very frustrating,” said MP Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer). “I get calls all the time about the automated service.”

“The lack of personal contact is really, really frustrating for a lot of people, and I think that’s where we suffer,” she said.

Asaro-Angelo said about 90% of the ministry’s unemployment claims are currently being processed online, and he suggested at another point in the hearing that the strengthening of staff will help address concerns about those who lack the means. technological.

“This is why we are so (focused) on increasing our call center staff, because it is the easiest way for someone to have contact if they are having problems with the internet.” “, did he declare

“Filing that first claim is not as much of a barrier as following up on some of the issues you might have later, and that is why we are increasing our staff every day,” said the Commissioner.

“In the end, humans will be the answer. We need more and more bodies here, which is why we have tripled the number of bodies here, ”he continued.

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