N.J. labor department chief again criticized for handling of unemployment claims

By: - May 5, 2022 6:59 am

Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo told lawmakers other states have had the same problems with their unemployment systems as New Jersey. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)

Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo took another beating from lawmakers during a budget hearing Wednesday, with legislators criticizing his department for taking so long to dole out jobless benefits during the pandemic.

Nearly every lawmaker on the Assembly Budget Committee shared a story of someone who has reached out to their office in need of help resolving an unemployment or disability claim. Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin (D-Essex), the committee’s chair, mentioned a constituent who is owed 36 weeks of unemployment benefits and has received a shutoff notice from PSE&G. 

“These are people’s livelihoods,” said Pintor-Marin.

Asaro-Angelo, who appeared before the committee to answer questions about his department’s budget request, defended the state workers who have processed nearly 2 million claims since April 2020 and explained to lawmakers why some people are still seeking help for their jobless claims more than two years after the pandemic led to massive job losses. The hearing lasted for three hours.

The Department of Labor is asking for $15 million in the upcoming budget, which has to be passed by both the state Senate and Assembly and then signed by Gov. Phil Murphy before July 1. The department received $7 million in the current budget, but spent less than half of it, according to budget documents. About 95% of the department is funded by the federal government. 

Asaro-Angelo and his department have faced heavy criticism from lawmakers who say their offices have become de facto unemployment centers, with residents calling to say they haven’t received benefits they should have gotten months ago. He heard the same criticism during a public hearing in March.

The commissioner discussed modernizations to the unemployment system — applications were updated last week to be in “plain language” — and apologized to the thousands of New Jerseyans who had to wait months to be paid. 

Some lawmakers questioned whether the $15 million his department is seeking would be enough to keep it staffed should there be another surge in unemployment claims. 

Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex), a former state labor commissioner, commended Asaro-Angelo for the job he’s done leading the department through the pandemic.

Wirths said what concerns him is people aren’t returning to public sector jobs, and that there are 11 million job openings across the nation waiting to be filled. Wirths also echoed other legislators who said the department needs to improve customer service and direct communication with claimants, including at the state’s One-Stop Career Centers, where state workers provide services to job seekers.

“Two years and two months into the pandemic, I think that we definitely do need customer service in the One-Stops. You guys may not like to hear it, but I have more people call who are just lost,” said Wirths. “There’s always going to be those folks that walk into a One-Stop who just need help.” 

Asaro-Angelo has placed a lot of the blame for the state’s unemployment system problems on the federal government. He reminded lawmakers Wednesday that these problems existed all across the country — even in states that spent billions of dollars trying to upgrade their systems. 

“Their Legislature is yelling at their commissioner of labor just as much as you guys are,” he said.

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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.