The head of New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission faced another grilling from lawmakers who said their constituents continue to be frustrated with frequent office closures and other difficulties securing appointments for services during the ongoing pandemic.
During a hearing Monday that was supposed to be about her agency’s latest state budget request, MVC chief administrator Sue Fulton instead was peppered with questions about its ongoing struggles to adapt to challenges posed by the health crisis.
“Something has got to get done,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex). “There’s got to be something we can do in order to make sure that people are getting what they need.”
Fulton was just the latest top official from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to face tough questions from lawmakers as they continue to review the governor’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
This week, the hearing schedule has lawmakers scrutinizing the operations of some of the state’s most forward-facing agencies, including some that have been tested most by the pandemic. They included MVC and New Jersey Transit on Monday, with top officials from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development scheduled to be interviewed by lawmakers Wednesday. The state’s unemployment system was crushed by the historic number of claims for benefits, and like the MVC with its service disruptions, residents and lawmakers alike questioned the state’s handling of unemployment payments.
With roughly 40 facilities across New Jersey, the Motor Vehicle Commission is one of the state agencies that interacts frequently with residents as they seek a new driver’s license, renew an old one, register a vehicle or have it inspected, or look to use any one of a number of required services.
But last year, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic brought on a series of shutdown orders from Murphy that slowed the economy and also led to a more than 100-day halt of in-person MVC services.
Backlogs, frequent closures, vaccine pause
During an opening statement to lawmakers Monday, Fulton said the events of the last year proved to be “extremely challenging for the whole state of New Jersey, and the Motor Vehicle Commission was no exception.”
The agency was inundated with customers after it reopened in July, and initially the challenge was overcoming an enormous backlog. That caused long lines to form at agencies throughout the state, and they were a hot topic of discussion when Fulton last appeared before lawmakers in September.
While the MVC is now handling more volume than before the pandemic, including shifting more transactions online, Fulton told lawmakers Monday that the agency has been struggling with frequent facility closures that occur each time an employee working inside an agency tests positive for COVID-19.
As many as six to 10 agencies can be closed “due to staff quarantines on any given day,” Fulton said.
An ongoing employee vaccination effort has also been set back by a recent pause in the administering of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, Fulton said. The hold was ordered earlier this month in response to concerns about extremely rare cases of blood clots detected in a total of six recipients of that vaccine.
“Once blanket quarantines can end, we will have significantly greater capacity and better service,” she said. “Until then, we are not effectively serving our in-person customers.”
A shorter quarantine for MVC employees?
But one of the questions several lawmakers asked during the hearing was why the agency has insisted on quarantining its employees for a full two weeks whenever someone working in an agency tests positive.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, a retired nurse who has been administering vaccines on a voluntary basis during the pandemic, suggested the Murphy administration could be using a shorter, 10-day quarantine and still be in compliance with federal recommendations.
“Our constituents are overwhelmed and overwrought by what they have come upon (when) they can’t get to the MVC,” said Munoz (R-Union).
In response, Fulton said her agency is simply following the orders of the Murphy administration and the state Department of Health.
“We are following the guidance that we were given by the Department of Health,” she said. “Those decisions are made at the Department of Health and in consultation with the governor’s office.”
“Perhaps we need to revisit that and take a closer look at that,” responded Munoz.
Online service issues can impact unemployment claims
Pintor Marin, the committee chair, also came back to the issue of using the agency’s online services, including for those who are not computer savvy or proficient English speakers.
She suggested any problems can compound other challenges the state is facing trying to administer crucial services during the pandemic, such as the distribution of unemployment benefits, which has been another source of frequent complaints.
“It’s almost like a full circle, right? For Department of Labor, they need to have a non-driver’s ID in order to be verified, but they can’t get a non-driver’s ID in order to get paid because they can’t get an appointment (with MVC),” Pintor Marin said.
“We’re just trying to make sure that you have some of these issues at the top of your fingertips,” she said. “When we can’t help them, you can only imagine what our office turns into.”
Meanwhile, amid the push to move more transactions online to prevent the spread of new infections, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) found parallels with problems that many residents have faced trying to find vaccine appointments in New Jersey.
“We had the same complaint with the vaccine rollout, that if you only can go online and you don’t know how to do that or you don’t have access to (the internet),” DiMaso said.
“To lean on that is just disappointing to me, and I would say, we just need to do something more than that,” she said.