TRENTON – At an often-tense hearing in the Senate Thursday, the state labor commissioner defended his office’s handling of jobless claims during the pandemic and cast doubt on how many people will want in-person help at unemployment offices once that starts up in late March.

Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said that in 2019, each agent provided an average of about $23 million in unemployment benefits to 4,500 claimants. In 2020, that grew to $140 million per agent, paid to 9,600 claimants.

“So, no one can say they haven’t been doing their job,” Asaro-Angelo said. “In fact, I doubt any group of state workers has been as effective and productive as our UI agents these past two years.”

Asaro-Angelo said part of residents’ frustration is that about 20% of people who file claims for benefits aren’t eligible – more than 400,000 in the two years since COVID hit. Others get tripped up in a system he concedes is confusing, especially for newcomers.

He said the state has tried to simplify things but sometimes is told by the U.S. Department of Labor to stop. He said that in May 2020, when 40,000 workers a week had trouble with the weekly certification process, the state’s staff programmed a process to clear them automatically.

“Unfortunately, the USDOL made us stop this automated process late last year, which contributed to increases in calls to us and to you even though overall claimant numbers are declining and have been,” Asaro-Angelo told the Senate Labor Committee.

Impeachment resolution

Lawmakers in both parties expressed frustration with the labor department’s performance and Asaro-Angelo’s responses in Thursday's three-hour hearing.

“There’s no expectation or no vision right now that this is ending any time soon, the debacle that we feel that the state is in and that it’s placed its unemployed,” said Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester.

“I am begging you to do something different,” said Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex.

In advance of the hearing, Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips, R-Bergen, announced a resolution impeaching Asaro-Angelo for how he has handled his job during the pandemic.

“Enough is enough and it’s time for a change," DePhillips said.

32 staff for in-person unemployment claims help

At the hearing, Asaro-Angelo said there are 25,000 appointments a week to help with unemployment claims now, without in-person services. Less than 1,000 in-person appointments a day will be available statewide once 32 employees are assigned to 12 One-Stop Career Centers beginning March 28.

“And I think the demand for in-person will be waning over time,” Asaro-Angelo said.

“Do you honestly believe putting 32 people in the field throughout the entire state of New Jersey, that that is going to be able to provide enough timely face-to-face meetings for our constituents?” Madden asked.

“We’re going to see,” Asaro-Angelo said. “No, I don’t think so. But they don’t need face-to-face time. The ones that do will be able to use it, and we’re going to schedule them. And we’re going to hopefully serve them in a way that gets them their claim adjudicated and their benefits faster.”

Asaro-Angelo said the people who will handle unemployment issues in One-Stop Career Centers aren’t new employees but rather ones reassigned from helping people over the phone.

“That’s not five or 10 more people a day that will be getting resolved,” he said. “That’s 20 people less a day because those folks will be in person handling less cases.”

Call in the Guard

Asaro-Angelo said claimants with issues more complex than can be handled by the person at the One-Stop are still going to have to follow up separately with specialists who can’t be at every center.

Lawmakers told Asaro-Angelo he’s underestimating the pent-up demand for in-person help.

“I think you’re going to have to call in the National Guard just to help with crowd control,” said Sen. Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said people can go weeks between attempted contacts from labor department representatives and are eager for in-person help.

“If these One-Stop Centers get overrun, right now you should have a plan in place so that tomorrow you push the button and we go to Plan B,” Bucco said. “And we don’t have that. Do you have a Plan B?”

“Yes, senator,” Asaro-Angelo said.

“What is the Plan B?” Bucco asked.

“I’m not going to discuss it here,” Asaro-Angelo said.

Bucco asked that Asaro-Angelo send the plan to Madden, the committee chairman, so it could be shared with lawmakers.

“We’ll see,” Asaro-Angelo said. “Plan A is going to be fine.”

“That’s an unacceptable answer,” Bucco said – and repeated three times.

Unemployment mega-sites?

The commissioner later said it would be a hybrid of “impact team” members on the phone or in person. Pressed by Madden, he expressed a willingness to consider mobile processing centers or a large-scale facility similar to the COVID-19 vaccine mega-sites.

“We should put money in it, and I think that if they need a ride we should be at their doorstep bringing them in and processing them,” Madden said.

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Asaro-Angelo made one new announcement at the hearing. He said the first efforts to make the benefits application process more user-friendly in New Jersey, one of two states participating in a federal pilot program, is scheduled to begin by the end of April.

“This first set of improvements, and the ones to follow, will help solve many of the problems claimants run into just answering the questions, honestly,” he said. “Later this year we’ll have a whole new system for our agents to work with, which will give them easier access to information about the claim and allow us to fix claimants’ issues faster.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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