Senate pushes state to clear unemployment backlog, reopen state offices

Murphy needs to ‘get people back to work,’ Senate president says

By: - March 3, 2022 6:35 pm

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Senate unanimously approved a resolution Thursday urging Gov. Phil Murphy to clear the state’s unemployment backlog and fully reopen all state offices, an action it took minutes before the administration announced the state’s one-stop career centers will begin offering in-person unemployment assistance.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari said the point of the body’s largely symbolic vote was “to deliver a message.”

“The administration needs to get people back to work, not at work,” said Scutari (D-Union).

Though the state has responded to the overwhelming bulk of unemployment claims submitted since the start of the pandemic, some have remained in limbo for months or longer.

Many of the residents still awaiting unemployment offices have turned to legislative offices for help. Lawmakers said those requests have inundated their legislative offices, spreading thin limited legislative staff.

The issue has simmered for much of the pandemic. Last year, legislators approved a measure requiring the administration to assign unemployment claims handlers to legislative offices, but Murphy vetoed that bill.

“We have had to spend over 90% of the time doing the state’s job,” said Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen). “My own staff, most of whom are part-time employees, have stepped up to the plate and have been working, five, six, seven days a week trying to help our residents and our constituents who can’t get answers from anybody. It’s unconscionable.”

The resolution is non-binding and asks the Department of Labor to submit a report to the Legislature on the number of outstanding unemployment claims, average wait times for filled claims, the number of Labor officials handling unemployment claims, and how long it takes employees to complete a given claim.

Thursday’s Senate session was delayed for nearly 90 minutes while lawmakers waited for the resolution to be drafted.

One-stop career centers operated by the Department of Labor typically provide residents with job training and job-seeking assistance, though their mandate was temporarily expanded to include unemployment aid after Hurricane Sandy.

Legislators have pushed Murphy to make a similar expansion in response to the pandemic. The governor has previously said he does not believe they will offer meaningful help in settling unemployment claims.

According to a press release the Department of Labor issued after Thursday’s Senate vote, residents seeking unemployment aid at a one-stop career center must have an appointment, and walk-ins will not be accepted. The department will contact filers with outstanding unemployment issues and offer them appointments dated after March 28.

“We recognize the desire of some claimants to communicate face-to-face when discussing the complexities of their unemployment claim,” Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a statement. “Since March 2020, we’ve promised claimants they would receive every penny they’re eligible for, and we continue to keep that promise by including yet another way for claimants to interact with our staff.”

Though some legislators have urged Murphy to take the step, others warned it would not be enough to end the state’s unemployment woes.

“You know, when you talk about one-stops, people say, ‘Hey, let’s open all the unemployment offices. That solves our problem.’ The reality is it does not,” said Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester).

Madden said issues resolved by the state’s one-stop career centers would be a “drop in the bucket.”

The Senate on Thursday also approved bills that would increase the amount of rent New Jersey tenants can deduct from their income tax bill, raising it from 18% to 30% of rent paid; allow residents to deduct certain retirement account contributions; and require the state to divest from businesses with financial ties to Russia or Belarus, among others.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.