In Brief

Study: N.J. last in nation for getting government help by phone

By: - August 3, 2021 7:03 am

The hubbub has to do with a 2015 law that governs how municipalities can sell their water supply and wastewater treatment systems. (Photo by Chris Boswell/Getty Images)

The human element in some of New Jersey’s government services is difficult to find.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago found live representatives for New Jersey’s unemployment insurance program and other government services were harder to reach than in any other state.

Researchers commissioned 10 assistants to call into unemployment, Medicaid, income tax and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offices in all 50 states between September 2020 and March 2021. Each caller would phone into all four of the offices and wait up to 45 minutes to connect with a human on the other end of the line.

None of the 10 calls made to New Jersey’s unemployment and SNAP offices reached a live representative in that time, and only a single call to the Division of Taxation found a person on the other end of the line.

The Division of Medical Assistance and Health Services, which administers Medicaid in New Jersey, fared better, with five of the 10 calls reaching a representative before the 45-minute timer elapsed.

The lackluster showing follows more than a year of criticism aimed at the overburdened unemployment insurance system administered by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“I could have told them that without conducting the survey,” state Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) said. “New Jersey is the bottom of the barrel. It’s a disgrace, an embarrassment. Clearly the labor department’s priorities are coming up short, and New Jersey residents are suffering because of it.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy did not return a request for comment, but Angela Delli Santi, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Workforce, questioned the validity of the study after this article was published.

“How could this rightfully be called a ‘study’ with a sample size of 10 calls per agency, which is far too small to draw any legitimate conclusions?” she said. “During the month of July, New Jersey’s call center connected with an average of nearly 8,700 callers daily, including through a callback option, which the study did not account for. The percentage of calls resolved on the spot was 79 percent; the remaining 21 percent were escalated to a claims agent with special training.”

She added the state provided online guides and chats residents could use to secure assistance with their unemployment claims, though the researchers did not find a evidence that “states compensated for lack of live phone representatives by having better websites or online chat features.”

The survey’s callers hung up shortly after connecting with representatives, and the study did not address the quality of the service provided by governments in each state, instead addressing only the accessibility of live personnel.

The wave of unemployment claims seen in the early months of the pandemic shocked the aging system that is used to approve payments to jobless residents. The backlog stretched for months in some cases and prompted the state to issue a call for programmers versed in COBOL, the language used on many of the state’s 40-year-old mainframes.

New unemployment claims have fallen drastically from the record highs recorded last March and April, but worries over the system’s stability have persisted.

Lawmakers dedicated $17.75 million to modernizing the system in the budget they approved in June. That’s less than half of the $50 million sought for the same purpose under a bipartisan bill approved by the Senate last August. That bill never made it to a vote on the Assembly floor.


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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.