More than two months have passed since New Jersey ordered nonessential businesses shut to spread out COVID cases and avoid overwhelming medical systems.
Even before the lockdown was announced, the Murphy administration had to know more than a million people would be put out of work and need to collect unemployment benefits. Had to know its Division of Unemployment Insurance wasn’t capable of getting people the benefits they earned and paid into.
Yet the Murphy administration left the unemployed at the mercy of an automated claims system running on 40-year-old computers, filling out forms made extra challenging by a computer language written in 1959 — a system that depended on talking to unemployed workers to smooth over the inevitable glitches in the dysfunctional process.
But the Division of Unemployment Insurance quit taking phone calls from people who were failed by the online claim system, quit answering their emails. Instead hundreds of thousands of people made jobless by the state were strung along, getting only recorded advice to call again later and responses from the system that offered no hope of straightening out their claim.
More than 300,000 have spent an unknown number of weeks or months trying anything they could think of to get some replacement for their pay lost to the state shutdown. The offices of legislators and local officials, as well as this newspaper, have been inundated with heartbreaking pleas — some from single parents desperate to provide for their children.
Then the state stopped paying benefits to 113,000 people who had managed to start collecting when it suddenly and severely limited when the 1.1 million unemployed in New Jersey could certify online that they were still unemployed. Since the antiquated computers and software quit functioning when many try to use the system at once, each person was allowed access for just one state-chosen 30-minute period per week — and they didn’t receive notice of the change but had to find it on the primitive N.J. unemployment website.
Despite leaving hundreds of thousands of newly jobless residents isolated and despairing, unable to communicate by phone or email with Division of Unemployment Insurance representatives, state officials have repeatedly blamed those victimized by their broken claims system for not making it work. Three weeks ago the Department of Labor said it was contracting a call center as other states had done to handle their increased claims, but where’s the improvement?
The residents of New Jersey don’t deserve to be told they’re the problem. They deserve the modern online interface that is routine in the business world, where dumping a third or more of customers would quickly bring bankruptcy. They deserve — absolutely need! — the state to start answering the phone and responding to their emails. They need to get their benefits or understand why they won’t get them so they can figure out how they’re going to make it through this lockdown and keep living.
And they surely deserve an apology from Gov. Phil Murphy for allowing this thoroughly predictable and no longer excusable crisis in the lives of so many New Jersey workers.