Lawmakers call on Gov. Murphy to set aside funds to upgrades unemployment system
Gov. Phil Murphy is resisting calls to replace New Jersey's 40-year-old unemployment system, opting for cheaper improvements. But a government technology expert tells Kane In Your Corner that without a total upgrade, it will be hard to make substantial improvements.
Lauren Lehr is still waiting for several months of unemployment benefits, stemming from a claim she initially filed last April. She admits she made a mistake while first filing.
"It asked for the most recent employer, and for me, that was Disney in Florida when I interned," Lehr says.
Out-of-state wages can slow down a claim, but in this case, Lehr should not have reported the Florida income since it was from 2020, and based on her filing date, the state only needed wage history through the end of 2019.
"They said a higher-up needed to unflag it and I would be good to go," Lehr said. That was in July.
It's a complaint Kane In Your Corner has heard often from people across New Jersey. Seemingly small errors often delay claims by months.
For nearly 20 years, state lawmakers ignored warnings the state's aging computers would not be able to process claims fast enough to handle a serious economic downturn. But Murphy, who last April blamed delays in processing claims on the 40-year-old mainframes, now says upgrading the state unemployment system would be "throwing good money after bad.” Instead of $200 million for a new system, he's budgeting $7.75 million.
"I think the number in our budget is a reflection of what we think is the right, prudent thing to do to make sure we stay ahead of the game," Murphy says.
Some experts question how effectively old systems can be improved without an overhaul, however. "They weren't built for an era where we expect government to be responsive," says Hana Schank, director of Strategy for Public Interest Technology at New America.
Schank says 40 years ago, government computer systems were not built with capabilities we take for granted today. "Nobody had any inkling that people would want to go in and look up their own case," she says. "The way that system design works, you really have to know what you're going to do before you build the thing. You can kind of retrofit it, but it's not going to be great."
New Jersey Department of Labor spokesperson Angela Delli-Santi says the agency has already made several improvements since the pandemic began. Among them:
"We automated the pin and password reset function (and) we reprogrammed computers to administer new federal programs.”
Some state lawmakers are trying to force the governor to spend more on upgrades, whether he wants to or not. The state Senate passed a bill to require him to use $50 million dollars of federal aid on unemployment improvements, and last week, an Assembly committee approved it too. If the full Assembly passes it, the measure will go to the Murphy to either sign or veto.