Coming soon: Make-your-own appointments for NJ unemployment help
TRENTON – As soon as next month, New Jerseyans might be able to make their own appointments for in-person visits to unemployment offices to deal with problems getting benefits, the state’s labor commissioner told lawmakers Wednesday.
Much of the Assembly Budget Committee featured lawmakers either prodding or pounding the Department of Labor and Workforce Development over unemployment claims, which they said remain a challenge for too many people over two years since the system was slammed early in the pandemic.
But Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo sprinkled in some news amid the mea culpas, including promising updates about the new, simplified application for unemployment benefits and the progress of in-person appointments at One-Stop Career Centers.
Asaro-Angelo said that perhaps starting at the end of June, people will be able to schedule their own in-person appointments to deal with claims at the One-Stop Centers. For the time being, the state is still initiating them.
“Right now, we want to make sure that we’re serving those who’ve been waiting the longest first. I imagine that’s what everyone would want us to do,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We don’t want folks coming in who just filed for unemployment last week and take the spot of somebody who’s been waiting to hear back from us since January or December.”
Asaro-Angelo said people using the new, plain-English application for unemployment benefits are getting through it 30% faster – and hopefully, not needing follow-up with an agent. About 71% used the new form in its first week, while 29% chose to stick with the old, familiar one.
He said the number of unresolved unemployment claims is down 85% from where it peaked, but still around 32,000 people are waiting for that adjudication. He said there are five cases dating back a year or more in which people still haven’t had an initial determination on their claim.
Asaro-Angelo was often contrite though sometimes pushed back against the criticism. He said things have improved over the pandemic’s two-plus years.
“There is no doubt that I am sorry that people had to go through this,” Asaro-Angelo said. “I am sorry that we weren’t properly staffed. I am sorry that we didn’t have the technology to get folks to be remote quicker. I’m sorry we didn’t bring on the contracted call center sooner.”
That call center and its 300 employees will be phased out soon as the contract reaches its end. Asaro-Angelo says that gives him some agita but that the number of calls that the center handles are decreasing and that self-scheduling of in-person appointments may start in late June.
Asaro-Angelo said constituents may be calling legislative offices with legitimate gripes but that their ability to reach someone at the state isn’t the issue it once was.
“Listen, in the beginning, for the first year plus, no doubt people couldn’t get through. I’m not questioning that at all,” he said. “But nowadays, people are more often calling because they don’t like the answer they got from us.”
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, said he doesn’t have a problem with hearing from constituents but that it’s having to go directly to Asaro-Angelo – or even above his head, presumably meaning to Gov. Phil Murphy – to get help.
“I have a problem with your folks not calling us back. I have a problem with your folks blowing off emails from legislative district office and follow-ups and follow-ups,” Mukherji said.
Assemblywoman Aura Dunn, R-Morris, pointed to issues with phones being disconnected, the state’s website being incomplete and a general gulf in communication about the process.
“If I am to Google, by the way, the Department of Labor comes right up and you get one and a half stars,” Dunn said. “We know that if it was a restaurant, it’d be closed. Shut down.”
Asaro-Angelo said his department has 1,400 people working fully or partially on unemployment claims and could use more – but that it’s not a matter of needing a budget increase of state or federal cash.
“We are hiring every single day,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t have the funding or the job positions or the spots. We don’t have the people. Just like you’re hearing from every single employer in this state and country.”
Asaro-Angelo said his department has job postings now, has had them since the start of the pandemic “and probably will for the next five years” but that people can’t be forced to work for them.