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Buono – New Jersey Needs To Expand Access For Unemployment Benefits

Economic Emergency Demands New Jersey Make Access to Unemployment Insurance Easier

TRENTON – Senator Barbara Buono, the Chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, today called on the Governor and the State Department of Labor and Workforce Development to take immediate action to ensure state residents can access Unemployment Insurance benefits without delay.

“Given the sheer volume, Commissioner (David) Socolow and the Department staff are to be credited for doing as good a job as can be expected administering Unemployment Insurance, as demand has skyrocketed during the current economic crisis,” said Senator Buono, D-Middlesex. “In the last few months, New Jersey has seen the number of unemployment claims processed in a given week literally double. We need more staff and more resources now to keep up with the ever-increasing demand. And we don’t need to spend state dollars to do it. We have existing federal resources to get people enrolled quickly, so that New Jerseyans are spending less time struggling to find benefits, and more time looking for work to support their families.”

Senator Buono said that an article in today’s Star Ledger (“Filing a jobless claim proves a hangup for many,” Brian Murray), underscored just how bad the situation has gotten. According to Buono, “In some cases people have waited as long as six weeks for appointments, and in the process are losing their homes. The current system is being overwhelmed. Part of the solution must be to increase access to services by expanding hours and perhaps adding Saturday hours to cut into the backlog and drive down wait times.

“Particularly during this nearly unprecedented economic downturn, Unemployment Insurance has become a vital safety net for the State’s workers in need,” said Senator Buono. “We need to make sure that people who’ve paid into the fund have access to the benefits they need, when they need them.”

Senator Buono added that in addition to the current telephone and online application systems, that New Jersey needs people on the ground in all 21 counties, helping unemployed State residents to navigate the application process.

Senator Buono said that, according to Commissioner Socolow, the Department is facing a ‘perfect storm’ in terms of demand. First, the current national recession has doubled the usual case-load of 7,000 claims processed in a week to nearly 14,000 claims a week in New Jersey. Second, the federal government has authorized two separate benefits extensions – a 13-week benefit extension in July, and a 7-week extension in September – because with the current state of the economy, people are finding it harder to find jobs and have to rely on Unemployment Insurance for longer periods of time. However, the Department has to process the extension applications, adding to the already-high workload.

And finally, because of the State government hiring freeze and the shortfall in revenue impacting the current and next fiscal year’s budgets, New Jersey can’t afford to increase the number of workers administering the UI program. However, Senator Buono noted that the federal government provides contingency funds on an emergency basis, through the Reed Act, to meet the higher-than-usual demand for unemployment benefits during an economic recession.

“New Jersey has $8 million in federal funds at our disposal, to bolster our current UI administration efforts,” said Senator Buono. “I’ve spoke to Governor Corzine’s staff, and we’re in agreement that the current economic emergency and the added demands placed on the UI benefits program require extraordinary solutions. We need to tap existing federal resources to make sure that the UI program is running as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“In times of crisis, we all need be able to act swiftly and decisively to guarantee to the best of our ability, that State residents have access to the programs they need to get by,” added Senator Buono. “I look forward to working with the Governor and the Department of Labor to cut down on any UI backlogs and make sure that the program is accessible to New Jersey’s workforce in need during these trying economic times.”