TRENTON, N.J. – It is not just that New Jersey’s unemployment offices have been closed for almost a full year, it is that the system had been hobbling along long before the crisis hit. That is what Assemblywoman Aura Dunn discovered Thursday when she was let inside the shuttered one-stop career center in Randolph.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” said Dunn (R-Morris). “It seems to me that the state has to do more than just upgrade its antiquated systems in Trenton. It has to rethink the whole process of how we deliver unemployment in New Jersey.”
Dunn said guards at the center told her that since it closed last March as many as 40 people a day stop by hoping to get help. But, the problems began much earlier. They said one employee who helped people file claims had retired three years earlier and was never replaced.
Dunn found 1970s era phones still along a wall so claimants could attempt to reach busy helplines in Trenton. Public computers used to check their accounts were broken.
“It is obvious to me that when the good employees that work here come back, there is little they can do to help claimants without proper tools,” explained Dunn. “It has to be extraordinarily frustrating for the center’s employees and patrons alike.”
The state Department of Labor might need as much as $200 million to bring its 1960s era systems up to date, but Gov. Phil Murphy is proposing a mere $7.75 million in his budget next year.
Murphy told reporters on Feb. 24 that it would be a “waste” to invest more money, insisting it would be like “throwing good money after bad.” Murphy and state Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo say the problem requires a solution from the Biden administration.
More than 2 million claims for benefits have been filed in New Jersey since March, when Murphy shuttered businesses across the state. Computers crashed and department employees tried to program clunky old systems to accommodate new federal stimulus programs. State career centers, like the one visited by Dunn in Randolph, have remained closed to the public across the state.
“This is a kind of crisis that’s forced people to realize how broken the system has become,” concluded Dunn. “It’s time to give it a major overhaul. Governor Murphy should properly fund the agency, bring it up to speed, and modernize this system.”