Guest Opinion: Invest In Unemployment System To Fix Claims Backlog
I am seeking a supplemental appropriation that would draw down $50 million from the $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act money allocated to the state for technology and personnel to fill unemployment claims processing positions.
For eight weeks, New Jerseyans have cooperated to flatten the curve and abide by the governor’s stay-at-home order. However, many of these people — over 1,000,000 of them — have been unemployed and out of work for the duration of this pandemic. Even worse, a significant number still have not seen one dollar of their unemployment benefits. Understandably, their patience, and wallets, have worn thin.
My office has heard from hundreds of people in our district, and beyond, who need help with unemployment claims. They come to us out of desperation, after weeks of waiting, days of calling, and hours spent emailing seeking answers. Meanwhile, their bank accounts are dwindling. Some have not seen a paycheck since the middle of March and they are worried about how they will be able to pay their mortgages and rent, feed their children, or even afford their medications. Sadly, this is not rhetoric — these are actual conversations we are having dozens of times a day.
While no one could have predicted the consequences of this pandemic, the current unemployment system is woefully outdated, and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development staff is simply not plentiful enough to address the full scale of this crisis due to years of reductions in manpower.
Consider that 1,018,785 people have filed for unemployment since March 20. The Department has processed 714,000 claims thus far, amounting to more than $1.9 billion in benefits paid out. However, for the 305,000 people who remain unpaid, that is of little to no consolation, and more must be done. In their eyes, and rightfully so, they have worked hard over the years and have paid into the unemployment insurance system. Now is their hour of need.
That is why I am seeking a supplemental appropriation to the department that would draw down $50 million from the $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act money allocated to the state for information technology upgrades and a temporary hiring of personnel to fill unemployment claims processing positions. Additionally, the department would be required to submit an implementation plan no later than 20 days after the enactment of this act to effectuate this process.
To his credit, Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo has not sat idly by during what can only be compared to a tsunami of unemployment claims. Just last week, he announced a number of steps to address the backlog including: a guide on how to correctly answer certification questions; a new chatbot feature on the website; a new call center that will be up and running in a few weeks; the reassignment of hundreds of staffers at the department to assist with unemployment claims; the hiring of 130 new full-time staffers to help process claims; the re-hiring of dozens of experienced retirees to help with the backlog of claims; and staff working overtime.
These are tangible actions that will have a meaningful impact in reducing the number of unpaid and outstanding claims. In the meantime, I will not stop advocating for my “bosses” who I represent here in Burlington County. These men and women, and their families, have waited long enough.
Senator Troy Singleton represents the 7th Legislative District, which includes 17 towns in Burlington County.