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NJ Senate advances bill on unemployment backlog

TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey would have to start paying unemployment to people who appeal denials but cannot get answers on them within eight weeks under a bill advanced Monday by a state Senate committee.

The bill, which advanced on a 3-0 vote with two abstentions by the Senate's Labor Committee, is intended as a way to push the Department of Labor to deal with a backlog of appeals that's been piling up as the number of unemployed continues to remain high and the state cracks denies a higher portion of claims.

On Monday, state Department of Labor Department and Workforce Development officials told the committee that it has structural changes to deal with reducing the backlog. The officials from the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie also discussed their new programs to help the jobless find work and said that tougher new rules that penalize those who lose their jobs because of misconduct have saved the unemployment $133 million. The department, which has been borrowing money from the federal government to cover its costs, now expects to be in the black in 2014 _ not 2018 as once estimated.

Labor Department Chief of Staff Frederick Zavaglia said the higher-level Board of Review is on target to be giving answers to appeals within 45 days starting in about a month.

But the lower-level Appeals Tribunal won't get there so quickly even though it is now deciding more cases than it is bringing in each week.

More workers are scheduled to start in the next few weeks, but Zavaglia said that it's not a problem the state can solve just by hiring more employees. They take time to train, he said, and there's the question of whether more workers would be needed in the long run.

"It is not simply a matter of throwing bodies at a backlog because, at some point, you're going to have less backlog and more bodies," he said.

State Sen. Richard Codey, a Democrat from West Orange, said those explanations don't mean much to people who are denied benefits.

"People want jobs. If they can't get jobs, they want to collect what's rightfully theirs," he said. "People who are suffering need answers and they need them right away."

Under the bill advanced Monday, the people who would get benefits because the state is taking too long to decide their cases would have to pay the money back if they're found to be filing the appeals fraudulently.

Republicans on the committee _ both of whom abstained from the final vote _ said they believe that anyone who gets the benefits and is not entitled to them should have to repay the state.

But Alan Schorr, a lawyer and member of the National Association of Employment Lawyers who supports the bill, worried that too many people would be found to have committed fraud to get benefits.

"There's a difference between when it turns out somebody is not eligible for benefits and somebody has filed a fraudulent claim," he said.

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Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill.