NJ unemployment computers crash again, leaving 'concerning' void of answers
Another computer problem within the New Jersey Department of Labor last week left residents unable to claim unemployment and other benefits, prompting renewed frustration over tech issues that have endured throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Layne Broyles of Randolph filed a claim for family leave insurance in early December so she could take care of her husband, who was hospitalized for two weeks with COVID-19.
She said she was supposed to get her first payment on Dec. 28, nearly a month after she and her husband had to stop work. Instead, she said, she was told a "computer glitch" prevented that — and future payments.
Neither a Department of Labor staffer nor a liaison in Gov. Phil Murphy's office could answer her questions about the reason for the glitch or when benefits would arrive, Broyles said Monday.
"A computer glitch and no answers is not acceptable," Broyles said. "To be told the liaison for the governor's office doesn’t know about this is even more concerning.”
The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which processes and distributes unemployment, family leave and temporary disability benefit payments, confirmed via tweet an "unplanned outage" on Tuesday, Dec. 29.
Murphy couldn't provide details on the outage when asked during a briefing on Monday.
“I can’t give you any insight on unplanned downtime, but if you’re going to have downtime last week is probably the one week of the year that you would have it," he said. "If you’re still waiting for your benefits and are frustrated, I don’t blame you. If you’re eligible you’ll get every penny you deserve."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor later said the system to certify for unemployment benefits was down for about 12 hours, "the first significant disruption to the certification process since May 2nd."
Angela Delli-Santi, the spokeswoman, did not answer specific questions about what caused the computer issues or how many people were affected. She said the "few" family leave claims that did not go through on Dec. 29 were expected to be processed Monday night and did not confirm tech issues on Dec. 28.
The problem in the eyes of residents like Broyles, however, is that last week's downtime was not an isolated event but a recurring one that this timeaffected caretakers and potentially even people ill with coronavirus themselves.
“Now you’re talking about people that are sick, ill or taking care of ill people," she said. "Now we’re talking not having money for medications or food, or [people who] don’t have the strength or ability to fight the system to get this done.”
Computer problems persist at state agencies
When it comes to New Jersey's response to the virus, providing unemployment and related benefits has been a trouble spot.
The state's unemployment rate went from record low to a record high, surpassing the economic hit of the Great Recession, as the state chose to shut down business to try to keep the virus at bay.
At the same time that claims for benefits were skyrocketing, the state had to roll out new benefits created by federal stimulus programs and shift its own workers to home offices.
But those explanations from state leaders, and their repeated pleas for patience, have been little consolation to the thousands of residents who were out of work and unable to collect payments or those who were stymied by a computer system that crashed.
Murphy and Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo previously blamed old computers for the state's backlog problems, but those known issues have endured for years and are a symptom of widespread neglect of New Jersey's tech backbone, according to one expert.
“This computer system needs to be upgraded," said state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, who said multiple constituents were affected last week and added that his own questions about the problem have gone unanswered by the Murphy administration. "We need to make an investment in the infrastructure to make sure this kind of stuff can be corrected in the future.”
Bucco said computer problems at the beginning of the pandemic may have been understandable, given the crush of demand.
“But now, nine months later, we should have this system in a position where it's operating and it's working and it's being effective, and people are getting their claims paid," he said. “We haven’t seen that yet, and that’s frustrating.”
Broyles and her husband worked for a car dealership before he tested positive for the coronavirus. He was discharged from a hospital about 2½ weeks ago but is still recovering and uses oxygen at home, she said.
“We are lucky he made it home. He was in the ICU," Broyles said.
Despite both being out of work for a month, the Broyleses have been able to cover costs for themselves and their two children, ages 3 and 11.
But Broyles, 38, is worried about hospital bills that are due to be arriving soon, and she is not sure how long it will be before her husband goes back to work.
“I can live off my savings, but for how long?” she said. “There’s no money in sight. I know nothing.”
Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.