After unprecedented strain, N.J. unemployment system making improvements, commissioner says

A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

New Jersey’s unemployment system came under unprecedented strain last year at the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s making strides in processing jobless benefits for out-of-work residents, the state’s top labor official said Tuesday.

Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo told lawmakers during a state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing that receiving more than two million new applicants for unemployment insurance was a shock to the system.

“It’s not a situation any state — no matter how well funded or how modern their resources — could have prepared for,” he said. “Clearly challenges continue to exist here and across the country.”

New Jersey has awarded more than $27 billion in state and federal jobless assistance since the start of the pandemic last year.

But the state’s response to the economic crisis has at times been frustrating to residents, who’ve struggled to get help processing their claims and have had to wait weeks or even months for a payment.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, questioned why the Labor Department wasn’t reopening its offices to help people sort out their unemployment claims while the rest of the state was beginning to reopen more fully. He said he’s heard stories of constituents calling the state’s helpline for assistance, but not getting their questions answered.

“It heightens the level of frustration for individuals already going through an incredibly frustrating time,” Singleton said. “Frankly, none of us here had a blueprint to prepare for what occurred.”

Asaro-Angelo said the department has gotten better at dealing with the overwhelming number of applicants, but suggested that reopening offices would slow down the process for state workers trying to process claims as well as the people seeking assistance.

He added that, for some applicants still waiting to hear whether they are eligible for benefits, the delay could simply be the result of extensive vetting by state workers.

“Gathering employer records, researching earnings history, waiting for records from other states sometimes takes longer than we or they would like,” Asaro-Angelo said.

Still, while lawmakers grilled Asaro-Angelo over lengthy wait times, the lack of in-person assistance options, and what the generosity of unemployment benefits means for employers, they also applauded the efforts of the Labor Department throughout a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

“While there’s many things for us to beat the department up over,” said Sen. Sam Thompson, R-Middlesex, “the reality of the fact is with the inundation that you got with the totally unprecedented number of people being unemployed and so on all at once, I actually commend you for the job that has been done.”

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