Home>Articles>Murphy sidesteps question over unemployment referral restrictions, criticizes Smith

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-Hamilton)

Murphy sidesteps question over unemployment referral restrictions, criticizes Smith

Legislators, members of Congress limited to submitting 25 claims every other week under new system

By Nikita Biryukov, March 17 2021 7:55 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy declined to say why his administration implemented new limits on unemployment claim referrals submitted by legislators and members of Congress Wednesday.

In a March 10 letter first reported by Shlomo Schorr, and obtained by the New Jersey Globe, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Hamilton) lambasted the policy, charging the limits would leave hundreds of his constituents in the lurch for months.

“Under the new policy, it will take over a year before my staff and I will be able to re-submit (as instructed) the 700 current pending cases which I had already initiated with NJDOL — not to mention the new inquiries I receive each day from constituents who are desperately seeking their benefits,” Smith said in the letter.

Asked about the rationale for the new policy at Wednesday’s virus briefing, Murphy did not answer.

“As I’ve said many times here, a lot of these cases of late — late being as far back as last May or June, with exceptions when there are windows where the entire system requires a fix — that these are very particular specific cases to the individual’s circumstance,” he said. “So I know we take that very seriously. I know the commissioner is taking it seriously. I’ve got no more color on that.”

Previously unreported emails obtained by the New Jersey Globe between show the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development was in talk with legislators and members of Congress about enacting the new protocols in late February.

Under the new rules, each lawmaker would submit up to 50 of their worst cases to the department before a two-week pause on referrals and follow-ups starting on Feb. 24. That pause also precluded lawmakers from contacting their liaison with the department.

After the initial tranche was handled, legislators and members of Congress would be limited to submitting 25 cases every other week through the new case management system.

Under the new program, one staffer from each legislative office — meaning one for each lawmaker — would be given access to the department’s case management system, allowing them to check the status of cases on their own.

The chosen staffers were asked to sign an online access agreement requiring them to maintain the confidentiality of unemployment applicants’ information, which includes social security numbers, but allowed them to share with a claimant information about their case.

In a March 13 letter to state Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo said the fracas was the result of “a misunderstanding in interpreting the new policy,” adding the new system would allow lawmakers to better respond to unemployed constituents.

After sidestepping the question about the rationale for the new system, Murphy launched an attack at Smith over his vote against the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill recently signed into law by President Joe Biden.

“I want to remind everybody — and I’ve found over the years, my years in this office, I’ve found a decent amount of common ground with Congressman Smith — he voted against the American Rescue Plan,” Murphy said. “So what does that mean? He voted against the $1,400 checks that families receive. Many of those families are folks who have been unemployed over the past year.”

The bill cleared the House in a 220-211 vote. Every Republican in the chamber voted against the bill save Rep. Thomas Tiffany (R-Wisconsin), who did not cast a vote.

The widely-popular measure extended unemployment benefits until early September and raised them by $300 a week and waived federal income taxes on up to $10,200 of unemployment benefits. Among other things, it also provided billions of dollars in direct aid to state, local and county governments, including $10.2 billion to New Jersey.

At least one Republican lawmaker took exception to the governor’s comments. State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) called Murphy’s attack “absolute garbage” and said there was no connection between the stimulus bill and the restrictions apart from “the governor not wanting to deal directly with the question.”

“The governor could deal with that directly and talk about it and the practical reason, if they want to make that case,” he said. “But to pivot and suggest that Chris Smith doesn’t care about working people because he voted against this bloated stimulus package that our children and grandchildren are going to have to pay for … is a deflection that’s shameful.”

Angela Delli-Santi, a Department of Labor spokesperson, later qualified the rationale behind the limits. New Jersey’s unemployment rate edged up two-tenths of a percent in January, up to 7.9%, a little more than twice than the 3.8% unemployment the previous year, though new claims dipped in February and into early March, falling to their lowest since before the pandemic began. With resources limited, officials don’t want to prioritize resources for claimants lawmakers have sent their way.

“We have to be equitable with all claimants in all districts whether or not they’ve contacted their representatives,” Delli Santi said. “Our priority is every claimant.”

This article initially credited the Asbury Park Press with first reporting the Smith letter. It was first reported by the Lakewood Shopper’s Shlomo Schorr.

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