New Jersey taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars answering calls from the unemployed during the pandemic.
Now, unemployment rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels, but thousands of claimants are still experiencing the same delays in processing benefits that were commonplace in 2020 and 2021.
And some applicants express a well-known frustration: the inability to get a human on the phone at the Labor Department.
“I called monthly and then weekly just to try to reach someone. I called as early as 9am and was told, ‘We’ve reached our status, how many people are in the queue. Hang up and call tomorrow,” said Sydney Ziemba, an applicant who applied for unemployment insurance back in January 2021.
In the spring of 2020, hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyers filed for unemployment insurance benefits each week. The flood of applications prompted the state’s Department of Labor and Human Resources (DOLWD) to contract with call center company Navient and pay the company up to $3 million a month to take calls from applicants stuck in red tape.
But now that Navient’s call center contract has expired, state lawmakers are reporting that many voters still can’t seem to get a human on the phone to solve problems they’re encountering with the online jobless filing portal.
“If you make a mistake, you’re immediately thrown into unemployment hell and there’s no getting out,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Denville). “Because when you’re on the phone, most of the time you get a recording and you can’t talk to anyone to break away from it.”
According to the bills received from the I-Team, the total bill for the Navent call center was $53 million for answering 5.7 million calls. That’s more than $9 per call.
“It was a complete waste of money,” Bucco said of the private call center. “We shouldn’t have disclosed it to third parties because all those third parties did was collect information and then send it to the Department of Labor!”
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A spokesman for Navient declined to comment on the company’s call center services.
New Jersey Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo declined the I-Team’s request for an interview, but in an emailed statement, his spokeswoman Angela Delli-Santi said the call center was instrumental in handling “an unprecedented number of calls”. Now that the call center contract has expired, she said the department has increased the number of state employees tasked with answering unemployment calls from about 80 pre-COVID agents to an average of 104.
“As the Commissioner noted at the time of the transition from the contracted call center, we expected waiting times to increase as fewer people would answer the phone BUT once people got through they could expect their issue to be resolved immediately or shortly thereafter. Instead of being put on an escalation list and having to wait several weeks for a call back,” Delli-Santi said.
Despite this optimistic outlook, the Labor Department provided data to state lawmakers last year that painted a deteriorating picture of the benefits process. The federal government says that most unemployment benefit recipients should receive their first payments no later than 2-3 weeks after applying. Before the pandemic, in 2019, New Jersey met that benchmark 87 percent of the time. But in 2022, New Jersey only checked out on time 50 percent of the time.
The numbers are even worse when it comes to non-monetary decisions. According to the federal government, states should make most non-monetary unemployment rules in three weeks or less. In 2019, New Jersey met this benchmark 83 percent of the time; last year, the target was only met 27 percent of the time.
In testimony before the working committee, Asaro-Angelo blamed onerous federal regulations and a fraud explosion for slowing statewide benefit processing.
“The identity theft that has happened since COVID is incredible and it’s through the roof across the country,” Asaro-Angelo said.
Last September, the US Department of Labor’s Inspector General reported the identification of $45.6 billion in potentially fraudulent unemployment benefits since March 2020.
Following calls from lawmakers, DOLWD last year began offering jobless applicants the opportunity to make in-person appointments at a dozen “one-stop career centers.” The department says about 68,000 applicants have scheduled one of these in-person appointments so far. At the time of writing this article, wait times for in-person appointments ranged from 3 to 5 weeks.
But Bucco said more personal services are needed. In fact, he said that in-person claims processing is also critical to curbing fraud.
“It’s easy to cheat over a computer,” he said. It’s very difficult to do that when you have to go to a personal call center and give them the information and they can look at your driver’s license and take the paperwork they need.
Ziemba said filing her application face-to-face in an office would have eliminated the clerical errors she believes stalled her claim. After her first online application in January 2021, she said she was issued with a refusal letter citing incorrect employment data. She appealed that refusal and has been awaiting a hearing ever since.
According to the Labor Department, as of early 2023 there was a backlog of more than 4,300 people awaiting appeal decisions.
Ziemba said she was particularly frustrated that scammers had had so much success in gaining access to ill-gotten benefits while her unemployment appeal stalled.
“It’s just so frustrating that people can easily slip through the system and get the money,” Ziemba said. “I’ve been sitting here for years waiting.”