The Assembly Budget Committee on Wednesday approved legislation sponsored by Assembly members Wayne P. DeAngelo, Celeste M. Riley, Peter J. Barnes III, Connie Wagner and Nellie Pou that would bring New Jersey’s unemployment benefits system in line with 21st century technology and help struggling out-of-work residents more easily manage their benefits.
The bill (A-3494), approved by a vote of 12-0, is part of the Democratic legislative “Back to Work NJ” effort to create jobs and economic development.
“We should be taking advantage of all the technology available today to alleviate some of the burden on out-of-work residents who are already dealing with countless other stresses,” said DeAngelo (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “This program is a vital lifeline, one that should be available 24-7.”
The bill would allow for any individual to file, reopen, cancel or close their claim for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits online. In doing so, the bill would require the Director of the Division of Unemployment Insurance within the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to create a website for the purpose of filing, reopening, cancelling or closing a claim for benefits. The website would be available for use by claimants 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Our current system only serves to exacerbate the stress of being unemployed by placing limitations on the days and hours that people can file claims via the Internet, restricting certain claimants from opening claims via the Internet, or freezing someone’s claim if they fail to file for their weekly benefits within the prescribed time period,” said Riley (D-Salem/Cumberland/Gloucester).
The bill would also require individuals to report to the division in order to claim completed weeks of UI benefits, after they have filed an unemployment insurance claim. The bill provides that all claimants may report to claim completed weeks of unemployment benefits within 45 days of the last day of the designated benefit period via a website that is available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
“It’s incredibly hard to reach the department by phone. Callers often get a recording instructing them to call back later due to long wait times. On occasions when they do get through, they are subjected to lengthy hold times, and when they do manage to speak to an actual person, it is only to schedule a call with a representative for weeks later,” said Barnes (D-Middlesex).
The current UI website allows claimants to file for benefits online only during business hours. It also restricts which days specific claimants can file claims. Meanwhile, many other states have UI Web sites that are accessible 24/7 without restrictions as to what hours or days claimants can file their claims online or close out claims.
“Another downside to our current system is that you must make an appointment to speak to a representative in order to cancel or close a UI claim,” said Wagner (D-Bergen). “This can sometimes take several days or even weeks, keeping claims open longer than needed and resulting in unnecessary benefit payments or unintentional UI fraud.”
“With unemployment still hovering near 10 percent, it’s no wonder the current system is inundated,” said Pou (D-Bergen/Passaic). “By shifting to a fully available online system we can alleviate a great deal of stress for our out-of-work residents and also help the Labor Department better handle the increased demand for unemployment services.”