Home>Highlight>Asaro-Angelo defends Labor Department’s record at Senate hearing

Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo testifies before the Senate Labor Committee on March 10, 2022. (Photo: NJ Senate).

Asaro-Angelo defends Labor Department’s record at Senate hearing

Senators say that their offices have been inundated with delayed unemployment cases

By Joey Fox, March 10 2022 5:33 pm

Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo testified before the Senate Labor Committee for more than three hours this afternoon, defending his department’s record over the course of the pandemic and responding to questions from senators on the department’s still-lingering backlog of unemployment cases.

The committee hearing began with extended testimony from Asaro-Angelo, who said that although his department has been able to provide unemployment benefits for the vast majority of eligible applicants, the small minority of rejected or delayed applications have loomed overly large in discussions of how the department has handled the pandemic.

“I doubt any group of state workers has been as effective and productive as our UI [unemployment insurance] agents these past two years,” Asaro-Angelo said. “But I know none of that matters to the small percentage who have been waiting for benefits for some reason, or to you and your staff, who have been patiently fielding calls.”

Asaro-Angelo added that many of the delays and rejections of benefits are due to complex federal rules governing unemployment insurance, which he as a state-level official has no power to change.

“The problems lie in federal policies,” he said. “Everything we and our colleagues in other states are trying to do to ease this process for our workers is just putting duct tape and Band-Aids on outdated federal policy seemingly designed for applicants to fail… I have been very vocal about how antiquated our federal UI system is, and how ill-equipped it is to be the main source of emergency funding.”

And as for the frequent complaints that the Labor Department relies too heavily on remote technologies and too little on in-person interactions, Asaro-Angelo insisted that the Labor Department has always handled most unemployment matters remotely and that doing so allows the department to address as many cases as possible.

“Our driving force has been, paying the most claimants, as quickly as possible, as much money as possible,” Asaro-Angelo said. “By far the most efficient way to do that is online or over the phone. There’s no doubt about it.”

In the hearing’s lengthy period of questioning from senators, State Sen. Joe Lagana (D-Paramus) pressed Asaro-Angelo on an issue many of his colleagues have reported in recent weeks: that their offices has been overwhelmed by requests from constituents for help on their outstanding unemployment claims, with little help or communication from Labor Department officials.

“We became a satellite office of the Department of Labor; we were not able to handle almost any other issue besides unemployment,” Lagana said. “And it got to the point where the communication completely ended… Out of over one thousand emails [sent to a Labor Department liaison], only a handful were answered.”

State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton) went further, saying that the Labor Department was totally unresponsive and fomenting a testy exchange with Asaro-Angelo about whether the department has provided adequate service to his district.

“[My office] submits a claim that’s out there for 290 days, and there’s nobody that we can talk to,” Bucco said. “Nobody that we can talk to, let alone that the claimant can talk to. That’s unacceptable.”

Asaro-Angelo responded that the claimants with wait periods as long as 290 days are hugely outnumbered by those who had no issues with their application and have already received their payments.

“The folks who are calling your offices – that’s about 3% of the claimants in your district,” Asaro-Angelo said. “I need to focus on the 100%… Your district has received $731,937,624 to 39,000 unique claimants. I can’t let it go by that you’re saying that’s no service.”

“I’m happy that you processed those claims,” Bucco replied. “Let me tell you, if you didn’t, my office would have been overrun. But it’s not those claims that I’m worried about.”

Prior to this afternoon’s hearing, the legislature had already taken its many criticisms public; the Senate unanimously passed a resolution last week imploring Gov. Phil Murphy to search for a solution to the unemployment claims backlog, and Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Wyckoff) made a longshot call this morning for Asaro-Angelo’s impeachment.

Asaro-Angelo said that his department is working in a number of ways to address those criticisms and improve claimants’ experiences, including modernizing the department’s online user interface this year and reopening certain One-Stop Career Centers for in-person services at the end of this month. If the limited reopening of career centers isn’t enough to meet demand, Asaro-Angelo said the department has a Plan B, though he would not elaborate on what it was.

But Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) protested that the actions the department has taken have not been enough for her constituents.

“There has to be a more critical urgency here,” she said. “I feel like all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have expressed that we want a sense of urgency lent to the department… I am asking you to please step up your game.”

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