Jobless claimant calls cost New Jersey taxpayers tens of millions during the epidemic.
Despite pre-pandemic unemployment, thousands of applicants are still waiting for benefits.
The Department of Labor’s phone inaccessibility frustrates some applicants.
“I called monthly and then weekly for someone. When I contacted at 9 am, I was told, ‘We’ve hit our status of how many people are in the queue. “Hang up and call tomorrow,” said January 2021 Unemployment Insurance claimant Sydney Ziemba.
Spring 2020 saw hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans apply for unemployment insurance weekly. Due to the application backlog, the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DOLWD) hired Navient to answer applicants’ calls for $3 million a month.
State senators claim many constituents still can’t reach a human to handle online unemployment filing site concerns after Navient’s call center contract was terminated.
“If you make one mistake you are immediately cast into unemployment hell and there is no getting out,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco (R–Denville). Because when you call, you get a recording and can’t talk to anyone to get out.
I-Team invoices show the Navient contact center charged $53 million for 5.7 million calls. Calls over $9.
Bucco criticized the private phone center. “All they did was collect information and send it to the Department of Labor!”
A representative didn’t mention Navient’s phone center.
The I-Team wanted to interview New Jersey Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo, but his spokesman, Angela Delli-Santi, said the contact center handled “an unprecedented amount of calls.”
She said the government has boosted the number of state personnel handling unemployment calls from 80 pre-COVID to an average of 104 when the contact center contract terminated.
“As the commissioner noted at the time of the transition from the contracted call center, we expected a bump up in wait times because fewer people would be answering phones BUT once people got through they could expect their issue to be resolved immediately or shortly thereafter, rather than having to be put on an escalation list and waiting several weeks for a callback,” Delli-Santi said.
Despite hope, the Labor Department handed state lawmakers information last year indicating the benefits process worsening. The federal government says most unemployed claimants should receive their first benefits within 2-3 weeks.
New Jersey met the objective 87% of the time in 2019 before the epidemic. 50% of New Jersey cheques were on time in 2022.
Non-monetary options are worse. States must report nonmonetary unemployment within three weeks. 83% of the time in 2019, and 27% last year.
Asaro-Angelo told the Labor Committee that federal regulations and increased fraud were slowing benefits processing nationwide.
Since COVID-19, identity theft has increased, Asaro-Angelo said.
The US Department of Labor Office of Inspector General found $45.6 billion in potentially fraudulent jobless claims since March 2020 in September.
After lawmakers demanded it, DOLWD began offering jobless claimants in-person appointments at 12 “One-Stop Career Centers” last year. The agency reports 68,000 in-person appointments. Currently, in-person appointment wait times were 3–5 weeks.
Bucco suggested more in-person assistance. Face-to-face claims handling also lowers fraud.
“Computer fraud is easy,” he added. It’s hard to do that when you have to walk into an in-person call center and give them the information so they can look at your driver’s license and take the documentation.”
Ziemba stated she might have avoided bureaucratic blunders by filing her application in person. After her January 2021 online application, she received a denial letter for erroneous job dates. She appealed.
The Department of Labor recorded over 4,300 appeals in 2023.
Ziemba is particularly unhappy that fraudsters have had so much success getting ill-gotten benefits while her unemployment case has lingered.
Ziemba complained that people could easily get the money. “Years.”