New Jersey’s unemployment system, and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development that administers it (of which I am commissioner), was criticized by The Press of Atlantic City in a June 3 editorial. While we hear and completely understand the anger and frustration of unemployed people who feel they have waited too long for benefits, the department appreciates the opportunity to correct the record on the state of New Jersey’s unemployment system.
Workers who pay into the unemployment system expect to receive benefits when the time comes. The whole purpose of the system is to provide a safety net to unemployed or underemployed workers. That takes on added significance here in Atlantic County, where the pandemic shuttered the biggest job-producing industry overnight, leading an unimaginable 48 percent of the county’s April labor force to file for unemployment, the highest percentage of any county in the state. Despite the high volume of applications received since mid-March, of Atlantic County workers found to be eligible, 97 percent have received payment.
Complicating service to our “regular” clients are new federal programs with the CARES Act on March 27, which made new populations of dislocated workers suddenly eligible for benefits. We are thrilled to see federal relief come to independent contractors, gig workers, those who exhausted unemployment and parents unable to work because their child’s school or daycare is closed due to the pandemic. However, serving these new populations quickly while also handling record volumes of traditional state unemployment claims was an unpredictable challenge. It was neither foreseeable nor preventable, as the editorial implies.
The Labor Department has made many significant strides. As of June 20, approximately 1.1 million claimants had received $8.2 billion in pandemic benefits, with weekly payments averaging $1,050 per worker. Thus, for most workers who have applied, the system is working.
On June 16, we stood up a new call center to augment the staff of dedicated agents who have been working overtime to settle claims and get people every penny they are eligible for. Prior to this supply-side improvement, we reduced the demand for phone intervention by making IT improvements allowing us to process hundreds of thousands of claims previously requiring a conversation, and posting easy-to-read information on our website to guide claimants through the application and certification processes. We implemented a chat function and created an intelligent intake email form. We have been customer-service driven at every turn. We have never quit taking phone calls or answering emails. With so many calls coming in per month, it is impossible to get to every one, so we developed alternative ways to meet customers’ needs in the short term.
Have there been hiccups? Sure. But systems described on the pages of this paper as antiquated or unstable have been handling the load remarkably well, with a run rate of 95 percent. About 90 percent of applicants have filed their claim online without a hitch, with the other 10% coming in over the phone.
In an article and subsequent editorial, it was reported the department “stopped paying benefits to 113,000 people who had managed to start collecting,” which simply isn’t true. Due to unprecedented volume, we developed a schedule for customers to certify for benefits. It’s a traffic-control mechanism, much like a turnstile. The schedule was adjusted to accommodate volume and be respectful of religious observances. Such schedule changes can affect weekly figures reported to USDOL, because the reporting week ends on Saturdays.
In this case, 113,000 claimants who did not certify on Saturday certified the next day, Sunday, which was explained to the reporter. Because benefits post to direct deposit and debit accounts two business days after certifying, this caused no delay in receiving benefits.
Contrary to the editorial’s description, claimants are given multiple opportunities to certify for benefits: their appointed 30-minute window, make-up times at the end of each day, and two make-up days on the weekend. Additionally, everyone has the option of certifying the following week — and claiming the prior week of benefits at that time.
Most offensive was the editorial’s false statement that we blame the claimants who have trouble with the system. The truth is, we are required by federal law to have a process whereby claimants certify their continued eligibility for benefits every week. That means answering questions concerning availability for work and whether the claimant received earnings that could affect benefits. Because these questions are hanging up tens of thousands of claimants each week — and delaying their much-needed benefits — the NJDOL initiated a campaign urging claimants to answer the questions thoughtfully. We even posted a guide to walk them through the process. That’s being helpful, not hurtful, to our claimants.
We can always do better, and we continue to do everything possible to serve every customer as quickly as we can. The issues unemployment systems across the country have had during this historic public health emergency are national in scope, and should be viewed as one big picture, not 50 smaller ones. Hopefully the magnitude of these problems will finally lead to a federal solution.
Robert Asaro-Angelo is commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.