Why NJ's Unemployment Computer System Is Still Frustrating Applicants

When Anthony Williams called an automated phone line to get his unemployment benefits in December, the robotic voice on the other side skipped part of a question.

Williams, 64, said he assumed the system would ask the question again, but it didn't, and instead he got a message that has frustrated thousands of people left without work during the coronavirus pandemic: He had to speak to a representative.

Getting someone on the phone took nearly a month, and six weeks later, Williams still hasn't seen his money.

"I am so aggravated and frustrated," the Neptune man said. "Not because I don't have the money, but because you can't get no one who seemingly cares at all."

One year into the pandemic that left Williams and 1 in 3 New Jersey workers relying on financial lifelines from unemployment, the antiquated computer systems that put benefits into pockets have seen few improvements. 

Gov. Phil Murphy's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year offers another Band-Aid that falls far short of what is needed to overhaul the system. State lawmakers are pushing a larger $50 million allocation that two bill sponsors said is a down payment with more money to come over several years, but that is not guaranteed.

In the meantime, the Murphy administration is urging the federal government to make changes that it says could ease frustrations for residents and must come before state dollars are spent.

While federal lawmakers, including the Garden State's senators, are expected to formally introduce a bill that would make those upgrades on Monday, implementation could be years out, meaning no relief in sight as the pandemic continues its toll on workers. 

The administration's approach, and Murphy's comment last week that investing more state funds would be a "waste," have angered Republican lawmakers who remain inundated with calls from frustrated constituents. 

"The pandemic has pointed out what a disaster information technology is," said Assemblyman Hal Wirths, a Sussex County Republican who served as labor commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie. 

"This really comes down to an antiquated system that nobody has the guts to address."

Murphy's state budget proposal, announced Feb. 23, dedicates an additional $7.75 million for unemployment computer upgrades.

A day later, an Assembly committee advanced a bill that already passed the Senate that would direct the Murphy administration to spend $50 million in federal funds to update unemployment computers.

But even if both come to fruition, the total funding is far below the estimated $200 million Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo has said would be needed for complete overhaul of the unemployment system.

Murphy said during his budget speech that his proposal was part of an investment in "modernizing critical operations and technologies" and that "too many people across New Jersey paid the price for that long standing neglect."

"New Jersey is done kicking problems down the road," said Murphy, a Democrat. "We are solving them."

But critics saw Murphy's budget proposal as only furthering neglect with another partial investment.

Allocating just $7.75 million wasted an opportunity for a complete upgrade at a time when the budget is flush and public attention demands change, said Regina Egea, former chief of staff to Christie and president of conservative-leaning policy group Garden State Initiative. Egea previously worked for AT&T for 30 years. 

"Even when it would seem we have the capacity to organize a real effort on this, the old playbook comes out," Egea said.

The systems will just be "patched again to relieve the short-term pain."

Murphy's budget is just a proposal, and the Legislature could step in and bolster that funding before the fiscal year begins July 1.

Lawmakers from both parties have recognized the need for upgrades, and last year they introduced the bill earmarking $50 million in federal funds. The bill, S2488, needs to pass the Assembly before it heads to Murphy's desk to be signed into law.

The bill sponsors know $50 million isn't enough to completely overhaul unemployment, but Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said it would be a down payment to begin upgrades.

Singleton, who serves on the Senate budget committee, said he hoped to allocate $50 million a year for four years until modernization is complete.

“We have to make a commitment as a legislative body that we’re going to see this through," Singleton said. "There have been fits and starts with all kinds of tech upgrades and something always crowds this out when it comes to the budget."

Unemployment runs on New Jersey's 40-year-old mainframe computers using an even older programming language called COBOL.

The aging systems had been flagged as "becoming obsolete" in a 2003 labor department presentation, and despite the state pouring tens of millions into fixes and warnings to Murphy, they have not been completely updated.

The crush of unemployment claims bested those systems' workload.

More than 2 million claims for benefits have been filed in New Jersey since March, when the pandemic shuttered businesses across the state. The computers crashed, and staffers rushed to program clunky old systems to accommodate new federal stimulus programs.

Murphy said last week that his budget allowed for reasonable upgrades, but to earmark more would be "throwing good money after bad." He said the federal government needs to update its own antiquated technologies before the state undertakes its own remodel.

“I don’t want to waste money in the meantime," Murphy said.

Republican Senators Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, and Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said Murphy's comments were a "slap in the face" to residents. Both said they would push to fund a full replacement of the unemployment system when the Legislature proposes its budget bill. 

"Call any of the thousands of people that are still waiting in the system because they can’t get their claims processed and ask them if they think it’s a waste of money," Bucco said.

Singleton said he was "respectful and understanding" of the governor's position but still planned to seek state-funded improvements in the absence of action from the federal government.

"There are just too many New Jerseyans who are saying what about us right now," he said. "If we can make some tech enhancements to help them right now, then it’s incumbent on us to do it.”

Unemployment is a joint operation: States administer programs to pay out benefits but within the guidelines of federal law. Those federal laws need to be updated, too, said Asaro-Angelo, the state labor commissioner.

One possible solution is a U.S. Senate bill that would create a uniform, online unemployment system that could be used across the country.

The proposal would allow for easier data sharing between states, something Asaro-Angelo said is especially important in New Jersey where people commonly commute across state lines for work.

The Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act specifically calls for technology that can be used on cellphones and that can handle rapid changes in claim volume if there is an emergency, such as updating quickly if new programs are rolled out.

The bill is expected to be formally introduced Monday by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, with New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez signing on as co-sponsors.

The legislation would provide "valuable guidance and resources to help make the needed technology improvements while also ensuring the state’s system maintains compatibility with federal systems in order to streamline the processing of claims and delivery of benefits," Menendez said in a statement.

It would "make it easier for people in New Jersey to access the benefits they are entitled to during these trying times," Booker said.

The legislation, however, creates a two-year deadline for changes to be made, meaning those who are still frustrated by technical issues won't see immediate help.

That means Williams, the Neptune resident, must continue to wait for benefits that suddenly stopped in December after his call to the automated phone line. Williams left his job at a food distribution center fearing COVID and lives with a family member who helps support him.

He said he understands there could be tech issues given the huge influx of claims during coronavirus, but the state should have found a solution by now, nearly a year into the pandemic. Williams worries about paying his car insurance and cellphone bills.

“What’s going to happen this month?" he asked. "That's what these people don’t understand. The bills keep coming.

"They had a whole year to address this. They haven’t rectified anything. All they can say is, we’re working on it.”

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