The appalling failure of Governor Phil Murphy’s Unemployment Insurance Division is entering its third year.
Millions of New Jersey workers temporarily lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic as people avoided public places and the state government ordered most public businesses to close. When they sought to reclaim unemployment benefits that they and their employers had prepaid, hundreds of thousands of workers were unable to get the partial wage replacement they needed to avoid serious financial difficulties.
The Murphy administration had left the unemployed at the mercy of an automated claims system using 40-year-old computers running software language written in 1959. This ancient technology depended on state employees talking to the unemployed to mitigate the inevitable errors produced by the dysfunctional system.
But the NJ Division of Unemployment Insurance stopped meeting people who were rejected by the online claims system, stopped taking their phone calls and responding to their emails.
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More than 300,000 workers spent months trying to get the unemployment benefits they needed. Another 113,000 workers had their benefits cut off when the Murphy DUI suddenly and severely limited when New Jersey’s 1.1 million unemployed workers were able to certify online that they were still unemployed.
Who knows how many have given up, unable to waste so much of their time. An example: when a worker files an unemployment claim, the state delays it until he submits a simple written form. This was quickly accepted, but by then it was too late to certify being unemployed at the start of the application. Repeated calls eventually reached an unemployment agent who said she would fix the certification, the claim would begin, and benefits would be paid. It wasn’t and they weren’t. After several weeks of appeals, another government official insisted that the claim should be dropped and a new one started, which was done and certification accomplished. But that only produced an automatic, erroneous response from the state computers that the benefit had already been paid under the previous claim and would not be paid now!
The federal benchmark for helping the unemployed is getting payments to 87% of claimants within two weeks. The New Jersey government gets the checks at only 50%.
The offices of state lawmakers have been inundated with desperate pleas for help from voters unable to get their unemployment benefits. They asked the Murphy administration to put claims officers in their offices to help with the job. It was rejected. They pleaded with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to reopen offices to meet with claimants. Nothing… until now.
Finally this week, State Unemployment announced that it would meet with people to help straighten out their claim for benefits – but only those it decides to invite to such a meeting! Don’t come here and call us, maybe one day we’ll call you.
The federal government gave the Murphy administration billions of dollars to deal with the problems caused by the pandemic. But the governor hasn’t used the windfall to begin updating the state’s severely outdated computers and unemployment software, or to bring staff up to the level needed to handle this emergency for New Jersey families.
Furious lawmakers from both parties called Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo to the mat. He said his department was continually recruiting workers to process unemployment claims and blamed the understaffing on labor shortages. Then, a press check of state job ads revealed that they were only offered and open to existing state employees. How many of them would like to join an imploding department to deal with angry customers who have been upset for months.
In a parliamentary-style government, this outrageous refusal to provide an essential public service would have brought down the Murphy administration. But many voters gave him a pass. Perhaps they or anyone they know has been among those who have suffered from this ongoing debacle.