Senate to Murphy: Enough already, reopen all state offices
TRENTON – An exasperated state Senate unanimously passed a resolution Thursday urging Gov. Phil Murphy to immediately address an unemployment claim backlog and reopen state offices closed to public, now nearly two years into the pandemic.
The resolution’s sponsors include all 24 of Murphy’s fellow Democrats in the Senate. Republicans noted they’ve been urging the Legislature to assert itself since 2020 but said it’s good the Legislature is finally, belatedly acting.
Senate President Nick Scutari, D-Union, said the point is to deliver a collective message: Get state employees back to work, not just at work.
“I’ve never seen anything unify my caucus and your caucus like this ever before,” Scutari said. “I believe that I can speak for all of us when I say it is time to go back to work and help our constituents.”
Shortly after the Senate vote, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced it will offer limited, in-person unemployment assistance at designated One-Stop Career Centers beginning on March 28. People will need an appointment, which will be initiated by NJDOL staff.
The nearly 38-minute discussion of the resolution in the Senate included speeches calling the continued unavailability of some in-person services a debacle, a mess, an embarrassment, ridiculous and disgraceful – and that was just among the Democrats.
“The state is failing,” said Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, of the inability to resolve unemployment claims. “It needs to be fixed. These people are not getting the promise that they were given.”
Madden said the limited reopening of the one-stops will be just “a small drop in the bucket,” as before the closures only 12 helped with unemployment claims in face-to-face meetings.
A number of senators said their legislative district offices, staffed primarily by part-timers, are still handling problems that the Department of Labor isn’t resolving. Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, said it’s 90% of what her office does.
“It’s unconscionable,” Schepisi said. “We as senators can’t get answers from anybody. They took away phone numbers for us to be able to have a live human being to speak to.”
“Who in this administration knows how to run government?” said Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris. “Certainly not the Department of Labor.”
Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said her office frequently deals with customers in tears about their problems obtaining unemployment benefits.
“It is ridiculous. It has been an embarrassment,” Cunningham said. “As a senator, I am embarrassed. As a resident of this state, I am embarrassed by this.”
Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, said “it’s totally unacceptable” that some government offices, whose role is to serve the public, have been closed to walk-in visitors for two years.
“This situation should never, ever happen again,” Corrado said. “It has been total failure on the taxpayer dime.”
Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, said that with the statewide school mask mandate ending Monday, there’s no reason all employees shouldn’t be back to work.
“I’m trying not to be angry right now because we’re doing a good thing, but I have constituents who are still living in motels, who are still struggling, who are still trying to get basic government services, and it sometimes feels like we’re just talking to a wall over and over,” Gopal said.