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Unemployment Response Focus of Latest GOP Hearing on Murphy Pandemic Response

Republican lawmakers continued their hearings on the Murphy Administration’s response to the pandemic on March 26, focusing on the inability to process unemployment claims that continue to this day. 

The panel of GOP lawmakers from both the State Senate and Assembly heard testimony from residents frustrated by the inability of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development to process their claims as well as experts that offered areas where officials could have sped up the process. 

New Jersey residents detailed to lawmakers their frustration of busy signals, website errors, and unwelcoming agents when they finally got through to a live person to discuss their claims. No representative from the department or Murphy Administration participated in the hearing.

Same Issues as Last Year

Overrun at the start of the pandemic last Spring when Gov. Phil Murphy ordered non-essential businesses closed, the state faced eight consecutive weeks in which more than 50,000 people filed new unemployment claims in New Jersey. Five of those weeks exceeded 140,000 claims, peaking at nearly 215,000 the week of April 4.

The New Jersey unemployment system was not alone in being overwhelmed—it was one of 27 states that saw their unemployment insurance computer systems crash in the early days of the pandemic, according to Bill Hinshaw, chief executive officer and founder of COBOL Cowboys.

Hinshaw consulting company was brought in to help the agency manage the issues. He stated to those gathered at the virtual hearing he is baffled claimants in 2021 are still experiencing similar issues that keep them from promptly receiving benefits and estimated fixing the back end would cost around $25 million, with a total system upgrade price tagged at $60 million.

Devoting More Funds

State Sen. Michael Testa (R-1) contrasted the expert testimony with the previous declaration by Murphy it would be a “waste of money” to spend more than the $8 million he proposed in his budget to upgrade the Labor Department’s computer systems despite New Jersey receiving billions in direct federal relief funds over the past year. 

“Governor Murphy has no excuse for refusing to spend the $50 million it would take to fix the UI system,” said Testa. “It’s unbelievable that we’re now a year into this unemployment system nightmare and haven’t implemented fixes that could have been done months ago.”

While critical of the inability to process claims, lawmakers took great pains to separate staff members and even Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo from Gov. Murphy.

Issue of Leadership

“We are not here to bash, to criticize the efforts that the Department of Labor did,” said State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-26). “There’s a lot of good, hard-working people there.”

Pennacchio then gave an analogy to the action at the department to the first season of the New York Mets in 1962.

“The Mets had a lot of good, hard-working players on the field,” he said. “And they managed to lose 120 games. Sometimes, it is the product and the way you deliver the product that should be scrutinized.”

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-13) noted his focus is on the lack of vision and concern on the part of the administration. 

Staff Frustrations

“In regular interactions with the Commissioner and staff at the department, it became clear that they were as frustrated with the system,” stated O’Scanlon. “While the Labor Commissioner and the staff tried hard, it was obvious there was no recognition of dramatic nature of our unemployment insurance system’s failure from the top.”

“The administration failed to assess the scope of the problems, the dire, life-threatening severity of the impact of the challenges people were facing.”

O’Scanlon said the solution should have been to mobilize and train government staff workers with the federal money that was available at the time. 

“It was the lack of will, the strategic foresight, management and true empathy for the victims of this failure that caused this tragedy for so many victims of this system,” he stated 

Battling Fraud

While the hearing was taking place, the state agency announced it had begun using an enhanced identity verification tool to expedite processing for legitimate unemployment claims and reduce fraudulent ones.

Identity theft has been rampant to fraudulently receive unemployment benefits nationwide during the pandemic. The state labor department said it has identified 260,000 fraudulent claims and prevented more than $2 billion in erroneous payments.

Security vendor ID.me will provide multi-factor identity verification services to help combat fraud attempts. Claimants will be instructed by the state to verify their identity through ID.me, which involves uploading photos of things such as a driver’s license or passport.

Previous Hearings

This was the third hearing looking at the Murphy Administration’s handling of the pandemic. On March 5, GOP lawmakers securitized the actions at long-term care facilities with a particular focus on the decision to have residents return to their homes after being diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The handling of the economy was the subject of the second hearing March 19. The pace at which New Jersey is reopening the economy was criticized by business owners, failing Murphy for not supplying clear metrics used to determine operating restrictions and guide reopenings. Additionally, industry leaders argued their members are willing to do the work to reopen safely but their pleas are were and are being ignored. 

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