The head of the state agency that handles unemployment benefits told lawmakers that over the last year staffing has been tripled and technology upgraded, all in an effort to meet a historic crush of jobless claims that millions of New Jersey residents have filed during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the persistent backlogs and other challenges residents trying to file for benefits have often loudly complained about are also caused by an outdated federal unemployment system, said Robert Asaro-Angelo, the commissioner of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, during a budget hearing Wednesday.
So even as the state has worked to improve its own unemployment benefits processing since the onset of the health crisis, it will take federal reform to really set things right, he told members of the Assembly Budget Committee.
This is not a situation any state — no matter how well-funded or how modern their resources — could have prepared for. And clearly challenges continue to exist here and across the country,” Asaro-Angelo said.
“The federal unemployment system is antiquated and certainly ill-equipped to handle an emergency,” he said.
State agencies come under lawmakers’ scrutiny
Asaro-Angelo was the latest top official from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to come before lawmakers who are reviewing the governor’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
This week, the budget-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’ve included the Motor Vehicle Commission and New Jersey Transit on Monday, and the departments of Health and Labor and Workforce Development on Wednesday.
The budget hearings will continue Thursday with the departments of Community Affairs and Military and Veterans Affairs due to be interviewed by lawmakers.
New Jersey’s unemployment system has been crushed with more than 2 million claims for benefits filed amid the pandemic, which began over a year ago. But like the MVC, residents and lawmakers alike have questioned the state’s handling of basic services, such as the processing of unemployment claims by the labor department.
While Asaro-Angelo acknowledged that “challenges continue,” he praised his department for distributing more than $26 billion to out-of-work residents over the past year, even as federal rules were changed on more than 20 occasions.
Asaro-Angelo also said New Jersey has become a national leader in several areas, including automating benefits renewal for someone after a year of unemployment, something that helps more than 1 million New Jersey claimants.
“Had we not created this new process, our call volume would have increased by tens of thousands each week, as benefits were halted by the federally required review process, which had been manual,” he said.
Launching unemployment ‘chatbot’
Other improvements that have been made over the past year include adding more staff for handling benefits claims, going from roughly 500 to 1,500, and establishing a “chatbot” on the department’s website.
“Our goal has always been prioritizing actions that bring the most relief to the largest number of eligible workers in the shortest amount of time,” Asaro-Angelo said.
Still, the technology that’s used to process unemployment benefits in New Jersey has previously been identified as a concern, and lawmakers and prior administrations did not fully address the problem before the onset of the economic downturn that was triggered by the pandemic.
Murphy’s budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year calls for using $7.8 million to upgrade the unemployment system. However, lawmakers have proposed sending the agency a total of $50 million in more immediate funding.
Asked during the hearing whether his department could use the larger appropriation, Asaro-Angelo thanked lawmakers for their interest, but said it “almost doesn’t make sense” to deploy more state funding when a broader federal fix is needed. That echoed remarks made several months ago by Murphy, who’s also advocated for federal help, that bristled some lawmakers.
“We are very comfortable with this amount for this upcoming fiscal year,” Asaro-Angelo said when pressed on the funding issue during the hearing.
But Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) raised concerns later about relying too heavily on action being taken in Washington, D.C., which is notorious for political gridlock.
“If we’re going to wait for the ‘system’ across the country to be fixed, we’re going to just wait forever,” Bergen said. “I hate to see us in a state of ‘paralysis through analysis.’”
Meanwhile, lawmakers also raised concerns about relying too heavily on technology to provide services, instead of having someone available to deal directly with residents who’ve lost their jobs. That’s been a recurring theme during the recent budget hearings with officials from other agencies, including with issues ranging from driver’s license renewals to obtaining an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination.
Several lawmakers said during Wednesday’s hearing that residents are still frustrated by not being able to connect directly with a department employee when seeking unemployment benefits. Instead, many are reaching out to their respective legislative district offices for one-on-one help, including those who are not technologically savvy.
“It is still very, very frustrating,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer). “I get calls all the time about the automated service.”
“The lack of personal touch is really, really frustrating for a lot of people, and I think that’s where we’re hurting,” she said.
Asaro-Angelo said roughly 90% of the department’s unemployment claims are currently fielded online, and he suggested at another point during the hearing that the boosting of staff will help address concerns about those who lack technological facility.
“That’s why we’re so (focused) on increasing staff at our call center because that is the easiest way for someone to have contact if they have internet issues,” he said
“Filing that first claim is not as much as a barrier as following up with some of the issues you might have further down the road, and that’s why we’re increasing our staff every single day,” the commissioner said.
“In the end, humans are going to be the answer. We need more and more bodies here, which is why we’ve tripled the number of bodies here,” he went on to say.