Feds will help modernize N.J. unemployment system under new pilot program

The federal program will launch early next year in New Jersey and Arkansas

By: - December 15, 2021 7:03 am

Exterior of 225 West State Street in Trenton, Office of the Governor. Photo by Mary Iuvone

New Jersey will be one of the first states to benefit from a federal government project to improve 50 embattled unemployment programs.

The Claimant Experience Pilot will aim to design a new system providing “equitable and timely access to unemployment benefits for eligible workers, will rooting out identity theft and other fraud issues that have bogged down state unemployment systems throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” the state Labor Department said in a press release.

The program will begin early next year in New Jersey and Arkansas. The first step will be creating a user-friendly entry to the system with integrated ID verification, which is currently a separate step, the Labor Department said.

Federal officials pointed to New Jersey’s success in doling out $36 billion in unemployment assistance to 2.4 million applicants since March 2020, and the state’s high ranking in percentage of unemployed workers successfully receiving benefits.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh also commended the state’s working relationship with U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Digital Service agency.

As the coronavirus arrived in New Jersey in March 2020, forcing the shutdown of businesses and restaurants across the state, hundreds of thousands of residents suddenly flooded the state Labor Department seeking unemployment benefits. The deluge of claims led to a backlog that took months to work through.

At first, residents reported issues applying for unemployment, problems using the state’s outdated website relying on archaic programs and major delays in receiving their benefits. Nearly two years later, some people say they never received their benefits, problems verifying through ID.me, or waiting weeks and months to hear from a specialist about their escalated claim.

The Labor Department maintains these difficulties are not due to computer glitches, but rather the constantly changing federal laws, which includes strict verification of applicants from multiple parties, and sometimes, multiple states.

And Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a statement no state was stranger to the issues. Since the issues plaguing unemployment systems around the nation came to light, Asaro-Angelo has been calling for a centralized, federal program, rather than 51 individually operating systems.

In September 2020, he wrote a letter to the state’s Congressional delegation suggesting reforms. The Biden administration is taking some of these issues on now.

“The current system is inefficient and needlessly difficult to navigate, and it implicitly classifies some forms of work as less ‘deserving’ of unemployment benefits than others…. These changes to the system can help us deliver benefits more efficiently and fairly in the future – all the time, not just at the height of a crisis,” Asaro-Angelo said in the statement.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.