TRENTON — A bill moving through the Senate aims to make it easier for legislative offices to help people with problems with unemployment claims.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee unanimously endorsed bill S-3505, which would require the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to assign unemployment claims handlers to each legislative district and partisan office during the COVID-19 public health crisis.

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“Our district offices are on the ground. And our district offices are open. We’re there to field calls or people that walk in,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union. “And so, we really need to be able to connect with somebody in order to serve our constituents.”

More than 2 million unemployment claims have been filed in the year since economic restrictions were imposed in response to the pandemic. The number of new claims has returned to normal – averaging around 10,000 a week for the past month, compared to almost 180,000 a week last March into April – but still people remain frustrated by unresolved claims.

“And we’re the ones that are on the ground bearing that frustration in some cases and also having that frustration ourselves,” Scutari said. “I mean, if we can’t get through to somebody then we can’t imagine what our constituents are dealing with.”

The bill appropriates $1.8 million from the general fund to pay for the program, in which at least one full-time unemployment claims handler would be assigned to each of the 40 legislative districts and the four partisan offices – Senate and Assembly, Democrat and Republican – at the Statehouse.

Each office would have view-only access to the unemployment claims system for use in constituent service duties and training on confidentiality and information security rules.

“We really need to be able to be paired with somebody that we can go to, to help get these issues resolved,” Scutari said. “I mean, that’s what we’re in the business of doing is helping our constituents.”

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Unemployment offices have been closed since last March, instead offering services online and through call centers.

“If the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is not going to open offices around the state the least they can do is assign case managers to the district offices,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.

“Right now, people are not in the unemployment offices, but people are in the district offices,” Scutari said. “So, we’re the people that you can see.”

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