Can the Unemployment Department Do Better?


Photo courtesy of pixabay.

Melina Quispe, Social Media Manager

Nearly 14,000 residents in Hudson County filed for unemployment claims in March 2021. Out of the 21 counties in New Jersey, Hudson County had the 8th highest number of cases processed. This surge of cases has led the unemployment department to be frazzled and people filing for unemployment to become frustrated.

The New Jersey Department of Labor spokesperson, Angela Delli Santi, said in an email interview, “When businesses across the nation abruptly shut down due to COVID-19 in mid-March 2020, that led to an abrupt and dramatic increase in the number of workers seeking unemployment benefits. No state could have been prepared for that surge. New Jersey very quickly put in place several IT upgrades that enabled our system to handle the increased load, and our systems have performed remarkably well throughout the pandemic, with few unplanned outages.”

Sure, this is an excuse for March of 2020 but is it an excuse for March of 2021?

In New Jersey, people have had difficulty submitting their unemployment applications, have not been receiving timely responses, have had unemployment specialists handle their cases when they had no idea what they were doing, and have not received their unemployment checks when approved for them. Additionally, there have also been technological issues on the website and issues that have delayed payments for months.

The Garden State Initiative Organization said in an email interview, “Two things are obvious: 1) the Users (those making Unemployment claims), are given limited to no visibility into how the claims process works, nor how their individual claims are progressing. 2) The IT (Information Technology) infrastructure, upon which New Jersey’s state government operates, is woefully inadequate to serve our residents even before the pandemic stressed our government in 2020; a condition which both the Executive and Legislative branches have admitted, but both remain indifferent to resolving….”

The residents that did not struggle as much with unemployment in this article had certain connections to human resources or government officials.

Natasha McMullen, a former NJCU student, filed for unemployment insurance by herself with no direction from any particular person. When she filed her claim, the unemployment department did not contact her when there were issues with her application. After McMullen filed, she called the unemployment department after two months and her case was escalated. Escalation is when NJDOL looks at a person’s information to see if they are eligible to receive benefits. After the escalation, they would never call her back with updates on her case.

McMullen said, “From June to October of 2020, my case was escalated 4 times and I had to keep calling to check in about the case.” Her experience with the unemployment department staff was good overall. However, with a specialist that she spoke to, it was the complete opposite. This specialist would jab at her when she was trying to explain herself.

McMullen said, “The lady on the phone would get upset at me when I tried to explain my situation.” McMullen then spoke about the unemployment department’s website.

In our conversation, McMullen affirmed that the unemployment department’s website was and is still outdated. McMullen went on to explain, “They need software engineers, and they need to start over. Some links do not work. I can’t change my address on my account. There were also a lot of errors that came up when I used the website.”

McMullen’s experience was not great. However, we must take a look at other individual experiences to conclude whether the unemployment department is the culprit or if there are other factors that make the process difficult.

Rosa Marroquin, a Hudson County resident, did not struggle when filing for unemployment. The only struggle Marroquin had was not receiving her checks when they were approved. It was difficult for the unemployment department to send Marroquin her checks because her particular occupation had sporadic hours every week. Some weeks Marroquin would work for 10 hours and other weeks it would be around 30.

Marroquin said, “For the most part my experience was good. I just think people need to take advantage of their resources.” By resources, Marroquin meant that she was able to contact a certain government official and the flyers that she received from the unemployment department to acquire new occupational skills at a community college. That being said, throughout the rest of this article, it becomes apparent that the more connections one has the easier it is to receive benefits.

For the most part my experience was good. I just think people need to take advantage of their resources.”

— Rosa Marroquin

Another NJCU professor, Joseph Moskowitz, was furloughed for two weeks during the 2020-2021 school year and then filed for unemployment with the help of a staff member in human resources. This furlough was negotiated by the governor and the statewide union. Human resources gave the professor clear instructions on how to file his claim. When Moskowitz was asked if it would have been harder to apply for unemployment without the help from professionals he said, “Yes. His instructions and what he provide for us was crucial.”

In other words, this means that Professor Moskowitz had an advantage over regular residents who work in occupations where a human resource department does not exist or will not help them file for unemployment.  Moskowitz also received a notice that there was a problem with his submission, unlike Natasha McMullen. Moskowitz was suggested by human resources to call the unemployment department and the statewide union sent instructions on what other faculty were doing to fix this problem.

A struggle that Moskowitz faced was that he had to prove his identity since it was not in the system, and he had never applied for unemployment prior to this experience. The unemployment department informed Moskowitz that they needed to make sure that his identity was not stolen.

Moskowitz had to fax very sensitive information such as his social security number, driver’s license, and a proof of residence. Moskowitz exclaimed, “I was a little concerned about sending these things in because this is a person that I don’t know. It is the very type of thing that they are saying watch out for regarding identity theft. But, sending in that information to them is exactly the type of information that could be taken or stolen.” Moskowitz then received his unemployment money about six weeks later.

It is evident that everyone has a different experience when filing for unemployment and dealing with unemployment. I have realized that the unemployment department should create better guidelines so that people who actually need unemployment money can receive their checks. Moskowitz even stated, “I wish that people who actually needed it were the first at the table instead of myself.”

NJDOL should start a contingency plan so that if there ever happens to be another pandemic or economic recession, they could be better equipped to handle a surge again. A 2017 presentation by the Nation Association of State Workforce Agencies proved that there has been a lack of federal funding available to upgrade technology, pay workers, and cover administrative expenses for the state’s unemployment department in the past 25 years.

The lack of funding that the unemployment receives may also be the reason why they struggled in March of this year. The unemployment department should fix their website, hire more staff, train staff better, and make sure that they are better equipped next time a surge in unemployment claims occurs. Hopefully, NJDOL becomes better equipped to handle surges of claims in the future.