TRENTON – People stuck in an information void about why their unemployment claims are hung up could soon benefit from a technology upgrade that would provide them online details about the problems that are causing the pause.

Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said a lot of “justifiable frustration arises when benefits stop, seemingly out of nowhere,” with vague messages that say ‘pending’ or ‘claim is not payable at this time.’

“I know the anxiety that causes when you don’t know what’s going on with your claim,” Asaro-Angelo said at an Assembly Budget Committee hearing.

One of the first upgrades that would be funded through $7.8 million in the proposed state budget would be providing specific reasons a claim was paused on the status page of the online dashboard a person sees when logged into the unemployment system, Asaro-Angelo said.

Asaro-Angelo said the data sharing that would allow the change involves a shift from mainframe to cloud computing.

“In the past, before the pandemic, they would just be able to call and get through,” Asaro-Angelo said. “But obviously while we’re increasing capacity in our phone centers, we are very aware that it’s not easy to get through.”

Frustrated lawmakers whose offices essentially have acted as extensions of the unemployment division for the past 13 months urged Asaro-Angelo to add more workers.

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, D-Mercer, said the lack of personal touch is frustrating to people.

“We’re looking for someone to be able to physically talk with someone, to walk them through the process,” Reynolds-Jackson said. “To go into the system while they’re on the phone, fix the issue, and then they can be resolved.”

Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, said the inability to reach a human being to speak with is what frustrates people most.

“People are so desperate,” Munoz said. “We had somebody in District 21 call, he was going to kill himself.”

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, urged the labor department to get its employees vaccinated so they can go to their offices, field calls and help people.

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Asaro-Angelo said the call centers have 500 workers and are adding more. He said the overall staff working on unemployment insurance has tripled to 1,500 people.

He said residents get frustrated with the unemployment system’s outdated technology but that, ultimately, it’s the complicated federal rules that trip them up.

“Because the volume is so high and so many folks need to talk to a human being that we need to have a human solution, not just a technological one,” Asaro-Angelo said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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