New Jersey’s state unemployment system had among the nation’s worst wait-times for getting in touch with a live representative, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago.
For the study, the research team tried 10 calls each to all 50 state’s unemployment, Medicaid, income tax, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, between September 2020 and March 2021.
Researchers would wait up to 45 minutes to connect with a person, according to the study. They were successful in getting in touch with the Division of Medical Assistance and Health Services – which oversees New Jersey’s Medicaid program – in five of those 10 calls before the 45 minutes ran out.
None of the calls reached the unemployment office, nor the SNAP office, according to the study, while only a single call was picked up at the Division of Taxation.
The state tied with Georgia in the study in terms of difficulty getting a live person on the phone, an oft-voiced frustration from the record-high level of unemployment claimants over the past year.
“Unfortunately, I could have told them that without conducting the survey,” reads a statement from state Sen. Kristen Corrado, R-40th District. “New Jersey is the bottom of the barrel. It’s a disgrace, an embarrassment.”
Unfortunately, I could have told them that without conducting the survey.
– State Sen. Kristen Corrado
Amid record-high unemployment and jobless claims, the state’s unemployment system consistently crashed, with many claimants waiting weeks or months for a single jobless benefits check. Complaints flooded into NJBIZ and other media outlets of claimants going without benefits, and getting no one on the phone to help with issues.
The state’s unemployment system was widely dependent on a decades-old computer program known as COBOL, leaving it ill-prepared to handle the wave of applications.
Republicans and business groups had suggested using half a billion dollars out of the American Rescue Plan’s allotment to the state to upgrade the computer systems for the unemployment fund.
Under the latest federal budget proposal, there would be $118 million that would “help modernized antiquated [information technology] systems used by state agencies” for processing unemployment claims, according to a statement from U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski’s office. His party, the Democrats, last year proposed putting in $50 million to upgrade the unemployment system – this budget proposes roughly $17 million.
“If we were to just throw a whole lot more money at the state level and the feds did not improve their technology, that would be good money after bad,” Gov. Phil Murphy responded in June.
The governor’s office, along with the New Jersey Department of Labor, was not immediately available for comment on this story – but another news outlet disputed the methodology of the university report.