KIYC: Lawmakers ignored warnings that NJ’s outdated unemployment system could cause problems in a crisis
New Jersey political leaders ignored years of warnings to modernize its unemployment system or face consequences. When the pandemic hit, Gov. Phil Murphy blamed delays in processing benefits on the state's 40-year-old technology. But Murphy now opposes replacing those ancient systems. So where does New Jersey go from here?
Kimberly Tredway has struggled to support her family since last March. She lost her job but only received one unemployment payment. Further payments have been held up by an issue, but she says she can't find out what it is.
"I don’t want to get evicted," Treadway tells Kane In Your Corner. "I don’t want to be homeless with my son."
Jay Bligen has been waiting for benefits since April 2020. He was approved and told to certify, but since June, his weekly certifications have come back as "not payable at this time.” He's not sure when the issue will be resolved.
"It’s been really rough, not having enough to provide for myself or my kids," Bligen says.
They're not alone. Kane In Your Corner has told the stories of dozens of people who've struggled to collect unemployment benefits since the pandemic began. At first, state officials were quick to blame their outdated computer systems.
"We have systems that are 40-plus years old," Murphy said last April. "And there’ll be lots of postmortems. And one of them on our list will be: how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?"
But how New Jersey got here is no mystery. For 20 years, the state's political leaders were repeatedly warned the obsolete technology would not be up to the task of handling an economic crisis.
"A lot of people have been saying, 'Something's going to happen, it's going to be really bad,' for a long time." says Hana Schank, director of Strategy for Public Interest Technology at New America. "And we've been ignored for a while."
In 2003, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development proposed modernizing the unemployment system, but funding was never approved. In a recent email to the office of state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R - Labor Committee), the Office of Legislative Services wrote, “If we had done those upgrades, we would have been much better prepared for the problems the system is now experiencing.”
"People enter the wrong information, or they click the wrong button. And once you hit that, you go into a black hole," Bucco says.
Bucco is calling for an audit of the unemployment system and wants the Murphy administration to finally upgrade the state's technology, using a portion of the state's billion-dollar budget surplus.
But the NJDOL is not even talking about the need for a new system anymore. “Despite narratives to the contrary, our systems have performed remarkably well, with very, very few unplanned outages over the past 10 months," says NJDOL spokesperson Angela Delli-Santi. "States with more modern computer systems (which cost hundreds of millions of dollars) have performed no better."
And when the governor released his proposed budget this week, he allocated just $7.75 million for upgrades to the unemployment system, The NJDOL has estimated a new system would cost $200 million. The man who once wondered "how did we get here" now says replacing the aging system simply isn't worth the money.
"Doing a complete overhaul at the state level in the absence of a federal overhaul to the unemployment benefits system is at least to some extent throwing good money after bad," Murphy says.