Murphy vetoes bill assigning staff to help lawmakers with jobless claims
U.S. Department of Labor told state officials the bill would violate federal law, if signed
Gov. Phil Murphy said federal rules bar non-executive branch employees from handling unemployment claims. (Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)
A bill that would have assigned 100 full-time Department of Labor employees to help legislative offices handle unemployment claims was vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy this week.
In a statement, Murphy said he nixed the measure largely because federal labor officials warned the state that the bill, if enacted, would have violated federal rules, including by having non-executive branch employees enforcing unemployment laws.
The measure (S-3505) was co-sponsored by more than 50 lawmakers, who have said their offices have been overwhelmed with requests from residents struggling to get unemployment payments. In March 2020, after months of low unemployment, the Labor Department was suddenly flooded with hundreds of thousands of jobless claims when Murphy ordered a host of businesses shuttered. The tsunami of claims created a backlog that took months to get through, and more than 18 months later, some people are still fighting to get their benefits.
Under the bill, a claims handler would have been designated to each partisan office and legislative district during the pandemic and six months afterward. It also would have given legislative aides some access to claim information.
“What’s happened is our legislative staff has been pressed into handling unemployment claims that have problems for whatever reason. They don’t have access to computers, so all they can do is get the information and try to contact someone in the Department of Labor and if they do, get the answer and get it back to the constituent. It’s cumbersome,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a primary sponsor of the bill and critic of the Labor Department’s slow responses during the pandemic.
Murphy, who has commended the Labor Department and Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo for their pandemic response, said in a statement the Labor Department “improved to meet the unprecedented crisis” and distributed more than $35 billion in benefits.
But, Murphy said, no matter how well-intentioned the bill, it would likely have led to federal sanctions, creating “significant unbudgeted costs to the state, as well as tax-related consequences for New Jersey businesses.”
He also noted the $1.8 million allocated in the bill wouldn’t have been enough to cover the salaries of claim agents, which was estimated to exceed $10 million annually.
Weinberg said unemployment services should be available in person to people dealing with benefit problems. All One-Stop Career Centers are supposed to reopen by the end of November, but none will offer unemployment services until some point in 2022.
“This is about to be going on two years. They seem to be this exclusive agency that doesn’t have to come back to work in person. It’s been very frustrating,” she said.
Murphy signed and vetoed a slew of bills Monday, which represented a deadline forcing him to take action on dozens of measures that have been on his desk since June.
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