New Jersey should be honest about unemployment call center shortcomings

August 18, 2021 7:00 am

New Jersey’s IT difficulties were laid bare by the pandemic. (Mary Iuvone for the New Jersey Monitor)

Two weeks ago, our own Nikita Biryukov reported on a study out of the University of Chicago that ranked states on how easy it is to get a government official on the phone.

New Jersey came in dead last. Researchers tried four different government agencies and reached a person less than 20% of the time in New Jersey. It looks like they had zero live interactions with anyone at the division of unemployment, a department that has been sharply criticized by folks who are still waiting on unemployment benefits they should have received long ago.

The spokeswoman for the Department of Labor was not pleased with Nikita’s story, and in an emailed statement referred to the study in scare quotes and disputed its findings.

OK, I thought, it should be pretty easy to figure out if the Chicago researchers were correct or not. So I picked up my phone and dialed the state’s “re-employment call center,” where, New Jersey’s website promises me, customer service agents can accept my insurance claim over the phone.

I called Aug. 6 at 8:52 a.m. The automated response told me to call back on the next business day. I tried all three numbers — for north, central and south Jersey — and received the same message to call back again.

I called again at 3:15 p.m. to see if maybe I could get someone then. Nope. Same automated message. All three times.

I called the following Monday at 11:38 a.m. “Call back later.”

The next day I had more success: Calling at 12:38, I received two “call back later” messages and, on the central Jersey line, was told I was in the queue to talk to someone. A person picked up 15 minutes later.

By Aug. 11 at 8:15 a.m. and at 12:38 p.m., I was back to “call back later.”

You can probably see where I’m going with this. In the last two weeks I made 33 calls to the numbers listed and was able to reach a live agent one time. Once. This is unacceptable.

I asked Angela Delli-Santi, the labor department spokeswoman who had a problem with Nikita’s story, about this. She said call center stats for the first half of August showed “we spoke with” more than 8,000 claimants a day, sometimes more than 10,000; 81% of calls were resolved on the spot; and roughly 12,000 callers abandoned the call before reaching anyone.

“That means, they hung up before being connected to an agent OR entering their number to receive a call back,” she said. The all-caps “or” is hers.

That last bit interests me, not just because it shifts the blame from New Jersey’s massive bureaucracy to the state’s frustrated, jobless residents. The automated messages I heard did not give me an option to leave a message. I was told, 32 out of 33 times, to call back the next business day.

Am I calling the wrong numbers? Maybe! But if I Google “New Jersey unemployment call center,” the first link gives me those numbers. If it’s this hard to get someone on the phone, why is New Jersey promoting those numbers?

New Jersey, like the rest of the country, had to contend with skyrocketing jobless claims starting in March 2020, and it’s understandable there would be hiccups. But the state’s response to claims that it’s nearly impossible to get someone on the phone should be, “We’re sorry to hear this, we’re going to fix it.” New Jersey officials should not stick their fingers in their ears and scream, “La la la we can’t hear you.”

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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”