One day after Gov. Phil Murphy proposed doubling funding to modernize the aging unemployment infrastructure in his budget address, the state Assembly Labor committee advanced a bill that would allocate $50 million in federal funds to improve the unemployment system.
The bill, A4380/S2488, was approved unanimously in the Assembly Labor committee Wednesday, months after it was introduced. The Senate passed the bill in August.
State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, introduced the bill in May, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, hundreds of thousands of claims were suddenly being filed, overloading the Department of Labor’s unemployment system, which hadn’t been upgraded in nearly two decades and was relying on a 40-year-old mainframe.
The bill would require the Labor Department to submit an implementation plan to the Legislature of how it would use the $50 million to improve the unemployment system’s benefit claims processing capacity.
Since the pandemic led to the shuttering of businesses, upending the economy and job market, more than 2 million initial claims have been filed, and $22 billion distributed.
But the skyrocketing claims exposed cracks in the unemployment system, with tens of thousands of New Jersey claimants going weeks and months without money due to website crashes, certification errors, or not being able to get through to a call center. Elected officials have criticized the system, calling on fixes to unemployment and the Motor Vehicle Commission, which also came under fire for its antiquated infrastructure.
The Department of Labor maintains user error is often at fault, with 20,000 claimants a week answering a federal certification question incorrectly.
While the $50 million is roughly seven times what the governor calls for in his budget, the state Department of Labor has previously said it would need $200 million for a full, five-year upgrade of the system.
Murphy has defended Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo and the work the state has done in getting claimants funds. Both officials have called on the federal overhaul with funds to modernizing the system.
“That is absolutely needed here. ... If the feds ultimately do boil it down and rebuild it from scratch, we’ll then want to be more heroic on our side, but I don’t want to waste money in the meantime,” Murphy said during Wednesday’s press briefing.
State Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, another sponsor of the bill, criticized Murphy for “proposing to increase spending by nearly 10%, but investing in unemployment system upgrades is where he suddenly draws the line.”
The bill heads to the full Assembly. If it passes, will go Murphy for a signature or veto.