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Two Years Later: Is New Jersey’s Unemployment System Better?

The state’s antiquated jobless aid system couldn’t handle the large influx of unemployment benefit claims brought on by the pandemic. While the system’s problems are not entirely resolved, it is better prepared for future spikes in claims.

Unemployment office in Neptune on Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2020.
Patti Sapone/NJ Advance Media
(TNS) — In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, New Jersey’s unemployment system was pushed to its limits.

Record-breaking numbers of workers filed for benefits when the state’s economy shut down in an attempt to stave off the spread of the virus.

The Labor Department’s already-antiquated computer system couldn’t handle the vast number of claims, something further complicated by never-before-seen federal programs that made more workers eligible. As claims piled up, agency officials had to go from store to store to find enough laptops for their agents.

Benefits for some unemployed workers were delayed while the state upgraded its systems to handle new programs. Some workers found their claims frozen without explanation. They would try and try to call, faced with busy signals, a message that said they should call back tomorrow or got stuck in an automated hell that would never lead to a live person. When they did reach a an agent, they were often told they needed to speak to a specialist. They’d leave a message, saying they often never received a call back.

For some, a full year passed, and they were still without answers about their benefits.

In the nearly two years since out-of-work New Jerseyans overwhelmed the system, it’s not problem-free, with some claimants still reporting an inability to get through on the phone or waiting for appeals decisions that seem to never come.

One worker said he filed for unemployment benefits for the first time on Oct. 31, 2021 and was verified by two weeks later. But two months after his claim, he still hadn’t received any benefits.

“First time I certified it went through, but now every week I certify I get an error and it says to call the agency,” said Mike, who recently got a new job and didn’t want to be identified by his full name. “After waiting and getting hung up on multiple times because they are busy, the agents have no answers why I get the error and say someone will call me back. Still waiting after nine weeks.”

“How are people supposed to eat and pay bills?” he asked.

His claim was only resolved after he found the email address of a Labor Department executive who pushed through his payments in three days.

But the agency has made significant improvements during the pandemic, setting the stage to better handle another onslaught of claims, should that occasion ever arise again.

Successes Amid the Chaos

From March 2000 through Feb. 19, 2022, the Labor Department paid out more than $37 billion on more than 1.5 million claims.

“Our mission throughout the pandemic has been to get the most money to the most eligible claimants as quickly as possible,” Labor Department spokeswoman Angela Delli-Santi said. “The numbers of people we serviced and the number of new federal benefits programs we administered are two obvious successes.”

She said New Jersey ranks among the top states in the percentage of applicants who go on to receive benefits, citing a Pew Research Center study and data analysis by The New York Times.

Roughly 20 percent of those who apply are ineligible for benefits, she said.

During the pandemic, the state improved the system by automating some processes.

Delli-Santi said automated processes have also shaved weeks or months off the time it takes for a case to be resolved with so-called e-monetary and e-adjudication processes.

“We abandoned the time-consuming task of mailing employers and employees for information, moving instead to email-based inquiries when additional information is required to make a determination,” she said.

And, she said, the time to get an actual person on the phone has markedly improved.

“There is typically a short wait time in the mornings, but almost no wait time in the afternoons,” Delli-Santi said. “For all of January 2022, the average wait time to get through at the call center was five minutes.”

That’s a huge improvement over how the call center operated from June 2020, when it launched, through December 2020. During that time, the state paid $11.3 million for a subcontractor to revamp the call center to accommodate the unprecedented number of calls.

Back then, callers still had to wait a long time if they could even get through to an agent, revealed by data obtained by NJ Advance Media as part of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request.

For example, in July 2020, more than 1 million calls were made to the call center from more than 160,297 individual callers, with 115,945 getting through to a representative. Nearly 825,000 of the calls, or 78 percent, got a busy signal, the data showed. In August 2020, nearly 1.2 million calls were made from 161,294 individual callers, with 112,808 reaching a representative. More than 950,000 of the calls, or 80 percent, got a busy signal.

It’s important to note that many of the incoming calls were made repeatedly by callers who tried again and again to get through, such as those who told NJ Advance Media they would call dozens or hundreds of times a day without success.

Moving ahead to December 2021 and January 2022, Delli-Santi said there were 400 staff members and agents answering calls.

“These numbers do not include the hundreds of other NJDOL staff who are calling claimants and employers to get additional or missing information on the claim, reaching out to applicants or claimants about potential fraud issues, and more,” she said.

Earlier this year, Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo won a big victory for some workers who were receiving notices from the state, saying they were overpaid benefits and have to pay back thousands of dollars.

In his capacity as chair of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, he sent a letter to congressional leadership on January 7, 2022, asking for the overpayments be forgiven. A month later, the U.S. Department of Labor released new guidelines that in essence forgave those overpayments, which affected as many as 250,000 New Jerseyans who owed an average of $4,400 each.

Asaro-Angelo said in the letter that the overpayments were not the fault of the unemployed because the federal government changed the eligibility rules midstream, “months after they had spent the money on necessities like food and housing.”

“To try to recover these funds after the fact stresses these workers and their families, strains the system of resources with little chance of success, and is counterintuitive to our mission of helping people in their time of need,” he said in the letter.

The Labor Department said it will notify affected workers of their next steps in the weeks to come.

And the agency is looking ahead.

New Jersey has started participating in a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Labor, only one of two states that are part of the program. It’s supposed to modernize and improve the system and provide “equitable and timely access to unemployment benefits for eligible workers, while rooting out identity theft and other fraud issues that have bogged down state unemployment systems throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.” the state Labor Department said.

It will integrate the identity verification process, which is a completely separate step under the current system and has caused confusion and the delay or stoppage of benefits for some applicants.

The program’s launch will include new claimants only, but it’s expected to eventually incorporate workers who are already in the system.

Remaining Challenges

Despite the Labor Department’s improvements, many workers still report having trouble with the system.

While the agency’s appeals tribunal closed about 77,000 cases since March 2020, more than 11,000 cases remain pending, the Labor Department said. It said roughly 26 percent were decided in the worker’s favor.

“Every claimant has the right to appeal,” Delli-Santi said. “Claimants appeal an initial decision with which they disagree. They then must provide information to verify their claim for benefits.”

A claim could be in limbo for many reasons, she said, such as how quickly the Labor Department receives the information it needs to make a determination, whether the claim is being contested by an employer, if there are out-of-state wages involved and whether the worker has filed claims in more than one state.

“Obviously, we want to resolve claimants’ issues as quickly as possible,” she said.

Many workers with outstanding issues note frustration because offices were closed to the public during the pandemic.

But that wouldn’t help people with outstanding unemployment claims, Delli-Santi said.

“There is a common misconception that our One-Stop Career Centers are `unemployment offices,’ when, in fact, they are re-employment centers, whose goal is to help residents enter or re-enter the workforce,” she said, noting that there have not been “unemployment offices” in New Jersey for about 20 years. “The career centers offer job training, job matching, resume writing, interview coaching and assistance with career changes.”

“No unemployment claims assistance is available at the One-Stops, and no one will be permitted inside without a scheduled appointment,” she said. “We are working toward providing some in-person, appointment-based unemployment assistance at select One-Stop locations.”

Additionally, some workers still report issues getting through the system. The identity verification system offers an in-person option for workers who do not have internet access, Delli-Santi said. If you don’t have email or file for benefits online, you can call the Labor Department’s call center using the regional numbers posted on its website to get further instructions.

Many workers also report trouble when they try to verify their identity through

As of the start of February, the agency has referred approximately 797,000 claims to, with approximately 223,000 successfully verifying their identity.

“That is 28 percent of all of the claimants we have referred to, raising a flag that many of the remaining could be attempted fraudulent claims,” Deli-Santi said.

The Labor Department said it has prevented more than $5.4 billion in fraud losses since March 2020, thanks in part to the program.

Then there’s money.

Asaro-Angelo said the agency would need some $200 million for a complete overhaul of the system and Republican lawmakers wanted to fund the agency with $50 million, but Gov. Phil Murphy’s latest budget only allocated $7.75 million, with another $10 million allocated from federal relief funds.

The governor said at his Feb. 23 coronavirus briefing that there are discussions about additional funding in the next budget.

“Short of throwing good money after bad, until the feds get their act together, we’re doing everything we can to get our systems in as good a shape as possible,” he said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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