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 also discussed 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 state $133 million. The department, which has been borrowing money from the federal government to cover its costs, 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 give 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 now is deciding more cases than are brought 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 employees. They take time to train, he said, and there's the question of whether additional 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 (D., Essex) 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 that advanced Monday, those who would get benefits because the state is taking too long to decide their cases would have to repay the money if they were found to be filing the appeals fraudulently.
Republicans on the committee, both of whom abstained from the final vote, said they believed that anyone who got the benefits and was not entitled to them should have to repay the state.