The head of the state’s labor department said that fully upgrading the computer infrastructure for New Jersey’s antiquated unemployment system could cost $200 million over half a decade, but cautioned that a litany of federal regulations means the upgrades would do little to clamp down on months-long delays for jobless aid.
“The most modernized systems in the country are having the exact same problems we’re having,” New Jersey Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo told lawmakers at a Tuesday morning Senate hearing.
“The underpinnings of the laws and regulations are pretty much the same everywhere,” he added. “In the end they have the same wait times, they have the same frustrated constituents.”
The first case of COVID-19 in New Jersey was recorded on March 4. Five days later, Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency.
Over the next few weeks, he enacted sweeping restrictions meant to stomp out the spread of the virus, including a stay-at-home order, a ban on most forms of travel and the closing of retail, restaurants, malls, casinos, theaters, gyms, hair and nail salons, construction and many other businesses. Those restrictions have only gradually been lifted starting in mid-June.
That’s led to a combined 1.5 million New Jerseyans out of work, and upwards of 40,000 who have not received a single unemployment check in months.
Many have complained of difficulty getting anyone on the phone to help with their claim despite hundreds of calls a day, or not connecting with a person who knows anything about their claim. Claims have taken months, many New Jerseyans said.
An April report from NorthJersey.com highlighted how the Murphy administration and that of his predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, were repeatedly advised to update the department’s antiquated system to move away from COBOL, a 60-year-old computer language.
But Asaro-Angelo cautioned that while updates would be helpful, the crux of the changes need to come from updates to federal regulations.
“It doesn’t matter about how nice a computer system you have. Individual claimant’s issues aren’t about technology, they’re about the … eligibility standards they need to meet,” the commissioner said.
“And that’s why it’s so hard to write computer programs for them, because the number of inputs and factors that go into creating some of the UI eligibility … are almost infinite.”
Asaro-Angelo pointed to states like California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which have undertaken massive efforts to modernize their computer systems, he said, to no avail.
It doesn’t matter about how nice a computer system you have. Individual claimant’s issues aren’t about technology, they’re about the … eligibility standards they need to meet.
— New Jersey Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo
In the case of Pennsylvania, the $180 million modernization started in October 2019 and was not ready in time for the pandemic-included unemployment surge, according to an April report from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
California has paid $161 million to Deloitte Consulting LLP since 2010, including more than $47 million a decade ago, to help modernize its systems with little to show for it, according to a June report from The Sacramento Bee.
Asaro-Angelo lamented that although the state has more than 700 staff handling claims, only about 300 of them are allowed to make the final determination.
That’s because under federal rules, only “a state unemployment staffer can make that determination,” Asaro-Angelo said, and training to fill that position takes upward of six months.
Another 250 positions are filled at a claims call center, and the remaining half of the labor department staff handle the back-end of the unemployment claims system.
The three month extension of the 2020 budget, which expires on Sept. 30, includes almost $4 million for upgrades to the state labor department’s computer system.
Asaro-Angelo said the funds were used as the “first steps to full modernization.”
That means “taking the current architecture and system and translating it in a way that can be upgraded” and “data can be shared with the new system.”
“Our users will see improvements on the front end, early next year to mid next year,” he said. “It’s all going to be incremental changes that will make a difference in days, if not weeks” in the wait times.