New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo testifying to a Senate committee on March 10, 2022. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Legislature)
State senators grilled Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo during a contentious three-hour hearing Thursday, criticizing him over the state’s handling of the unemployment crisis at the height of the pandemic and questioning him about why they still hear from residents who say they haven’t received benefits they should have received long ago.
Senators relayed heartbreaking stories of the constituents they’ve helped over the last two years. One listed the number of days residents said they’ve been waiting for benefits — 174 days, 203 days, 286 days. Another relayed the story of a woman who has waited so long, she has been married and had her name changed since she applied.
And they all expressed frustration and disappointment to the commissioner over the lack of in-person unemployment services nearly two years after COVID-19 led to a surge in jobless claims and a raft of complaints about the difficulty getting state employees on the phone to help.
“I have someone who’s still waiting for an appeals process a year later. I don’t understand why it has to take 365 days,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). “My community wants to go somewhere and see someone. They’ve been shut out of the process for two years … I am asking you to please step up your game.”
The hearing came just a week after the state Senate unanimously approved a resolution urging the Labor Department to open unemployment offices for in-person visits and provide a list of how many cases are backlogged. That day, the Labor Department announced it would open some of their career centers for in-person unemployment aid beginning March 28.
Asaro-Angelo and the Labor Department have come under fire since the start of the pandemic, facing harsh criticism over the backlog and the confusion surrounding outstanding claims. Residents say they still have trouble getting their calls answered, face a slow appeals process, are missing payments, and more.
The March 2020 shutdown at the start of the pandemic triggered a deluge of claims for unemployment benefits. Since then, more than $37 billion has been doled out in state and federal benefits to 1.6 million claimants, state officials say.
Lawmakers Thursday focused on the people whose claims are stuck and need to be handled by a specialist, or who don’t know if they are eligible for benefits, a group Asaro-Angelo said represents roughly 3% of all cases. The commissioner maintained New Jersey is the best state for handing out benefits, and defended department employees who have faced an increased workload during the pandemic.
Ruiz and committee chair Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) questioned why the department is waiting until March 28 to open career centers for in-person unemployment help. When Asaro-Angelo told them 32 agents would be tasked with helping claimants across 12 centers, legislators from both sides of the aisle were appalled.
“Having two people at a site won’t cut it,” Ruiz said.
Several senators suggested approaching unemployment claims the same way other COVID problems have been addressed, with mega-sites and mobile units. If it worked for vaccines and testing, it should for unemployment, they said. Madden suggested state transportation workers offer rides to people to get them to the career centers.
“It’s really what’s right and what people expect,” he said.
Asaro-Angelo said it isn’t that easy. There are times when unemployment issues need to be escalated and can’t be resolved on the spot, he said, adding some of the biggest issues involve cross-state income, employer disputes, and disability claims.
When it comes to mega-sites, Asaro-Angelo said he doesn’t believe there is enough demand to make them necessary. While some people want face-to-face interaction, more want their issues resolved over the phone — the way his department has handled unemployment for decades, he said.
“In-person services is the most inefficient way to serve customers. I know it doesn’t sound right, but that is the data,” he said, noting 25,000 appointments are done over the phone and online each week.
State Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) noted that when Motor Vehicle Commission centers reopened for appointments after a lengthy COVID-related closure, people slept in parking lots to hold their place in line and arrived at 4 a.m. to make sure they snagged appointments. The DOL should expect a similar response when career centers offer in-person help, Bucco said.
The remark started a testy exchange between Bucco and Asaro-Angelo.
“There’s got to be a better way. I’m telling you, these one-stop centers are going to be overrun. They’re going to be overrun,” Bucco said. “If these one-stop centers get overrun, you should have a plan in place so that tomorrow, you push the button and go to plan B and we don’t have that. Do you have a plan B?”
“Yes,” Asaro-Angelo responded.
“What is the plan B?” Bucco said.
“I’m not going to discuss it here. … Plan A is going to be fine,” Asaro-Angelo said.
Bucco called it an “unacceptable answer.”
State DOL clashed with the feds
Asaro-Angelo repeatedly pointed to strict federal oversight as the source of chokepoints in the state’s system.
There were times New Jersey unemployment agents tried to communicate problems with lawmakers or constituents and were told by the director of the U.S. Department of Labor to stop, largely because of issues surrounding potential fraud, he said.
Asaro-Angelo brought a big cardboard box with him to the hearing, one that held 7,119 pages of unemployment regulations handed down by the feds, including more than 1,500 pages added since COVID hit. He said the volume of paperwork represented the myriad changes that have been made to the unemployment system during the pandemic, including major programs expanding benefits to workers who aren’t usually eligible.
“The problems lie in federal policies – not legacy computer systems, not virtual services. Everything we and our colleagues in other states are trying to do to ease this process for our workers is just putting duct tape and Band-Aids on outdated federal policy, seemingly designed for applicants to fail,” Asaro-Angelo said.
Last year, legislators advanced a measure requiring unemployment claims handlers be assigned to legislative offices, but Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed it, citing federal guidelines.
More agents in the field would mean fewer agents answering phones, Asaro-Angelo said Thursday. As claims and call volumes have decreased, more people can get their claims resolved on the spot, Asaro-Angelo said.
The commissioner has been advocating for a centralized federal system for unemployment benefits, rather than 51 separate systems. Asaro-Angelo said the issues seen in New Jersey exist across the nation, including in states that recently updated their computer systems.
Madden noted New Jersey is one of only three states where both employers and employees pay taxes into the unemployment fund.
“We’re here taking people’s money. They are expecting a public service, and I don’t want to say it’s being totally denied, but it is extremely substandard when you can’t get access,” he said. “And then what should they do?”
New Jersey is part of a pilot federal program to modernize the UI system. A major upgrade will be completed by the end of April, with the system overhauled before the end of the year, Asaro-Angelo said.
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