The unraveling of the economy due to the COVID-19 crisis has been a one-two punch for many thousands of New Jerseyans. First came the layoffs, and they’ve been brutal. And then came the process of filing for state unemployment benefits. And for many, that’s been brutal too.
The state unemployment system has strained mightily in the face of record-breaking job losses, with over 500,000 claims filed since the middle of March, when statewide social distancing orders forced the shuttering of businesses deemed non-essential.
Rocco Del Viscovo and Elaine Sorce are represented in the statistics, both having filed claims after losing their jobs weeks ago. They still can’t get answers on when they might start to receive benefits.
“So I start calling a half an hour before the office opens and a half hour after they close and I get the same message, call back on the next business day,” Sorce said.
“I call 7:10, 7:15, 7:20, multiple times only to find out there are no agents available,” Del Viscovo added. “You don’t even have the option to wait.”
Others have taken to social media to express their frustrations, in some cases complaining that they are already registered for benefits only to be thwarted by the state’s balky computer system when they try to file the required weekly claim for benefits.
Gov. Phil Murphy insists the state is trying to fix the problem.
“We know that many of you have been having trouble accessing your benefits because of long wait times or online lags,” he said. “We’re working as hard as possible to make it easier.”
Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said the state has been bringing in state workers from other departments to help man the phones.
“We had a 1600% increase in claims, which is somewhat unfathomable for any technology, digital or analog,” he said. “But we’re working the best we can to get through the backlog to come up with new methods to contact our claimants.”
For the week ending April 4, more than 215,000 New Jerseyans filed an initial claim for unemployment benefits; that compares to just under 8,000 for the first week of March.
Officials say fixing problems with the website is more challenging. The unemployment system’s mainframe uses a programming language known as COBOL, which really isn’t used much anymore.
“We have systems that are 40-plus years old,” Murphy said recently. “They’ll be lots of post mortems, and one of them would be how did we get here, when we literally need COBOL programmers.”
The initial version of COBOL programming language dates back to the late 1950s, although new iterations were developed regularly over the next 50 years. While still a mainstay of many business and government systems, organizations have been migrating away from it, as the number of COBOL-literate programmers has dwindled. Officials have issued a call for retired programmers to help out.
Other states have faced similar issues as they too have had overwhelming demand for unemployment benefits. Across the nation, more than 6 million workers filed a new claim last week alone.
Across the Hudson, New York’s system for processing unemployment benefits has encountered similar problems. On Friday, it launched a streamlined reboot of its computerized filing system, which it fashioned with help from Google. Officials say that, working with the new site and with the help of a 1,000 new staffers, they will be able to respond with a phone call to claimants within 72 hours of a claim being filed.
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon says the state’s Labor Department is now paying the price for New Jersey’s ongoing failure to invest in IT infrastructure.
“It’s easy to say, you know, we’ll deal with that next year,” the Holmdel Republican said. “The problem is, then you’re 40 years on, you’ve got a system that’s a total disaster and it’s heartbreaking.”
“And that’s no knock on the people at the department, who are busting their butts with duct tape and spit and bandaids,” he added.
Even with the current technology challenges, Asaro-Angelo says 92% of all claims have been filed online, and hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans are having getting their claims processed.
He acknowledged, however, the problems of those encountering delays.
“I know it’s a small solace to the folks who are frustrated by calling numbers over and over again,” he said, adding that “every single New Jerseyans will get every single penny they are eligible.”
“Will it be as quickly as they or I want it to be” he added? “Likely not, if they are not filing clean claims.”
Some frustrated claimants expressed additional frustration over the fact that state unemployment officers were closed for the Good Friday holiday and that hours of operation have not been extended.
Murphy said he had “complete sympathy” with those who are facing difficulty, but also defended state staffers.
“We’re doing our best,” Murphy said during his daily briefing Friday. “These people have lives as well. They may have families, they overwhelmingly do, who are home from school and homeschooling, remote learning. They may have challenges in their own family in terms of illness. We’re doing our best to find our way through this.”
Murphy also referenced the unprecedented demand for benefits.
“We’ve now broken through not just the Great Recession but the Great Depression in terms of unemployment ranks,” he said.
As the delays continue, though, so does the apprehension of those who remain frustrated.
Rocco Del Viscovo is worried about mounting bills. The father of three has a big health insurance payment due.
“My biggest fear is if I can’t afford to pay it at the end of the month, then I’m going to lose health insurance for my children and myself,” he said. “This is not the time to lose health insurance, God forbid something were to happen.”