Labor commissioner gets friendly reception in budget committee, a turnaround from years past

Pandemic-related unemployment anger dominated past hearings, but not this year

By: - April 26, 2023 5:09 pm

New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo testified in front of the Assembly Budget Committee on April 26, 2023. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Assembly)

After clashing during tense budget hearings in recent years, state lawmakers instead largely applauded state Department of Labor officials Wednesday for their work during the coronavirus pandemic and their return to pre-pandemic levels of responding to unemployment claims. 

Members of the Assembly Budget Committee had a friendly tone as they questioned Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo, who touted expanded apprenticeship programs, increased enforcement against wage theft, and an about-face on complaints about unpaid claims. 

It was a stark change from the sparring that erupted at legislative budget committees last year and the year before, when the pandemic sent unemployment claims skyrocketing, created an unprecedented backlog of people waiting to be paid, and sparked aggressive criticism from lawmakers. 

“I’m very happy about the path we’re on,” Asaro-Angelo told the panel about improving the unemployment system. “Will I ever be happy and feel like we’re at a final point? No, I don’t think so. It used to be, ‘here’s your system, here’s our technology, and we can’t do anything about it until we put out another contract’ … that’s just not how we’re going to operate in this division anymore.” 

Lawmakers questioned Asaro-Angelo on hiring people during tough economic times, the rising minimum wage, the impact of new laws like working papers for high school students, and residency requirements for public sector jobs. 

He still faced questions on delays in unemployment appeals, issues with — the verification tool used to fight fraudulent jobless claims — and technological improvements meant to streamline the claims process. People have to fill out fewer fields and forms have updated language to make it easier for people to understand what’s going on with their claim, Asaro-Angelo said. 

The department made “incredible progress,” he said, but customer service still “sticks out as demanding innovation.” Callers continue to report trouble getting through to report unemployment issues, he said. 

Last spring, Asaro-Angelo told lawmakers more than 30,000 people were stuck waiting to hear back about their claim. Now, he said, there is “not large backlog or even a small backlog, quite frankly, or anything that’s out of the ordinary that would be different than pre-Covid.”

The department also opened in-person services for jobless claims in March 2022, and agents have helped more than 100,000 people, he said. Offering multiple service options has “had a bit of a release valve for our claimants,” Asaro-Angelo said. 

Gov. Phil Murphy’s $53.1 billion budget proposal allocates about $200 million for the labor department, which gets more than two-thirds of its funds from the federal government.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer noted that overhauling infrastructure and antiquated technology would cost $2 billion and asked why Asaro-Angelo didn’t ask for more money. 

The commissioner responded that the technology hasn’t kept people from getting their claims, instead blaming the lack of communication between technologies. The new unemployment infrastructure is being built through agile development, where new products and pieces are added on an ongoing basis to improve older technology. 

“That’s how we’ve done it all these years in New Jersey and every other state, and that’s what led to the overall meltdown in the system a couple of years ago,” he said about the previous method, known as waterfall development. “We’re looking to do things differently here in New Jersey … every state’s coming to us to ask how we’re modernizing our unemployment system.” 

Competing with private sector

Job recovery in the private sector has outpaced the public sector. Private industry jobs grew by thousands between December 2021 and 2022, while just 100 public sector were added in the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics March data. 

Across state government, roughly 2,000 jobs remain unfilled, the state Treasurer testified last week. Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex), a former Labor commissioner, said he supports smaller government but wants to ensure taxpayer-funded services are fulfilled. 

He pressed the commissioner on the state’s residency requirement for state jobs, which was signed into law in 2011 at a time of high unemployment to fuel the state’s job market. It’s now come under scrutiny, especially during shortages of teachers and health care workers. 

The commissioner said the department has to enforce the law. Many hires who live outside New Jersey receive waivers to do so, but Asaro-Angelo worries about people who don’t bother applying because of the residency requirement.

He also pointed to a recent executive order signed by Murphy directing officials to determine which state jobs should not require a four-year college degree, which will expand the hiring pool.  

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) asked how to attract public-sector workers when minimum wage is at $14, using the example of an entry-level government accountant making a $40,000 annual salary when they could make double that in the private sector. 

Asaro-Angelo said he remains concerned about worker wages and keeping up with the private sector, which can make quicker changes to salaries and benefits. The state’s expanded apprenticeship program is training workers to “deserve a higher wage, to have skills that an employer sees as valuable to them,” he added.

Increased enforcement

The department has cracked down on employers accused of wage theft and increased protections for workers, the commissioner said. Uber was ordered to pay New Jersey a record $100 million settlement, which will replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, after labor officials discovered 300,000 wrongfully classified Uber workers.

The department also received an $8 million settlement from Chipotle after discovering the fast-food chain violated labor laws at 85 stores statewide. That money went to the department tasked with enforcing child labor laws and educating employers, teachers and unions about restrictions in place to protect minors.

And nearly $3 million in fines and penalties were collected for compensation violations, which is often a sign of worker misclassification, Asaro-Angelo said. The newly created Office of Strategic Enforcement and Compliance is targeting industries with a history of violations or vulnerable workers unlikely to file complaints.

Since 2019, 103 stop-work orders have been issued to employers who violated labor laws, he said. The department could look at stronger penalties, he added.

“We’re pushing the boundary on that. I think we’re going to see where that goes,” he said.

An earlier version of this story misstated the updated infrastructure for the unemployment system.


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, 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.