Senate panel advances bills that seek improvements to unemployment system
Changes to the state's unemployment system proposed by two bills would "make this process a little more bearable," Sen. Tony Bucco said. (Courtesy of New Jersey Assembly GOP)
Lawmakers hoping to get jobless residents their unemployment benefits faster advanced two bills Monday aimed at improving New Jersey’s unemployment system.
One bill (S2357) would make about a half-dozen changes to how the Department of Labor processes unemployment benefits, while the other (S2396) would require an annual report of the department’s work. Both bills passed the Senate Labor Committee unanimously Monday.
Lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the Labor Department for how long it has taken to pay out unemployment benefits to some residents during the pandemic. Legislators say their local offices have become de facto unemployment centers to help people who say they are not getting help from the state.
“We have struggled through this process for a long time, and these bills are much appreciated by me, and I’m sure will be much appreciated by our residents and will help make this process a little more bearable,” said Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris).
At a budget hearing last week, Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo said his department works to the best of its ability, and he repeated his contention that delays are due to technological constraints and strict oversight from the federal government.
Under the first bill, if someone facing a change in benefits files an appeal, they would continue being paid the initial amount until the appeal is resolved, and the time to appeal a claim would also be extended from 10 days to 21 days. Typically, people who owe the Labor Department money or are going through appeals do not receive more benefits until their claim is resolved.
The bill would also limit the amount claimants must pay back if they receive overpayments because of errors caused by the state or their employer to a maximum of 50% of the benefit. People who are overpaid due to fraud or misrepresentation would be liable to pay back the entirety of what they received.
The state Labor Department announced in February it would forgive overpayments for more than 250,000 New Jersey claimants who received extra unemployment benefits during the pandemic because of errors on the government’s side.
The bill would also require the state to provide claimants with options to speak with a representative within a reasonable appointment time. Currently, people who call seeking unemployment assistance reach a call center — which often greets claimants with a recorded message to call back at a later time — and can wait up to eight weeks for a return call.
The second unemployment-related bill passed by the Senate Labor Committee Monday would require the labor commissioner to make an annual report detailing the department’s work that year. The report would include how quickly and accurately unemployment claims and appeals were processed during the calendar year and an analysis of New Jersey’s performance compared to the national average.
The Assembly companions of both bills have yet to be heard by the Assembly Labor Committee.
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