Inside the Department of Labor’s collaboration with New Jersey to overhaul unemployment programs

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, shown here speaking at an event in New York City in January 2023, touted the time-savings generated by the state's new online interface for unemployment insurance.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, shown here speaking at an event in New York City in January 2023, touted the time-savings generated by the state's new online interface for unemployment insurance. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

A new application for unemployment claims in the Garden State marks the result of a years-long federal effort to help states modernize their jobless aid efforts.

New Jersey has a new front door for unemployment insurance.

The simplified application, fully phased-in on April 11 after months of a limited rollout, is the first substantial update to the application in over a decade, according to the state administration, and is the result of years of federal-state collaboration started during the pandemic.

New Jersey and Arkansas began a claimant experience pilot with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2021, a collaboration that marked Labor’s first foray into product development for the unemployment program, which is delivered across 53 different state-level systems. 

While the focus in the Garden State became the application for jobless aid, the effort in Arkansas grew into a national identity verification offering for states to use the federally-backed system or an in-person U.S. Postal Service option for identity verification.

For New Jerseyans applying to unemployment benefits, the new application offers several benefits, officials told reporters this week. 

The application is now mobile-friendly, available in Spanish and English and maximized for accessibility. 

Applicants can also save their progress to come back later, and they’ll find a new landing page with information about their situation and next steps. 

The state also revised the application’s questions to make them easier to understand and removed others completely. 

“For any of our state's residents who need to access unemployment benefits, this new application process will quite literally save hours of your time,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told reporters in a call this week.

The new application is also making things easier on the back end by ensuring that applicants fill out the forms correctly. As a result, there’s been a 14% reduction in applications requiring manual review.

There’s also been a 20% increase in claimants taking the correct next step to verify their identity via vendor once they’re done with the initial application, according to the Murphy administration, which says that the state has also revamped the identity verification process, required for claimants after they file.

The New Jersey Department of Labor, the Office of Innovation and the Office of Information Technology all worked on the modernization with the U.S. Labor Department and early assistance from the U.S. Digital Service.

The effort also received financial help from Labor as part of the agency’s funding program under the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. 

New Jersey’s approach to the project focused on agile development and human-centered design grounded in testing with real jobless aid applicants, said New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo.

The new app is integrated with the state’s mainframe system, the replacement of which the state says is a long-term project. 

“One of the things that's unique about New Jersey's approach here is rather than start with replacing the hardest, most intractable part of the system, we worked to shore that up, bringing on more folks with the COBOL experience since the beginning of the pandemic… and then make improvements that the users are seeing and working with directly,” said the state’s Chief Innovation Officer Dave Cole. 

The approach aligns with the U.S. Labor Department’s Open UI Initiative, launched last year. The effort is meant to set up a common framework for states to pursue modular development for the jobless aid system, as opposed to all-or-nothing efforts to overhaul state systems completely. 

One of the things Labor has had to navigate since beginning its foray into unemployment tech modernization years ago is the extent to which states can draw on centralized pieces of tech. 

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution here,” Julie Su, acting U.S. labor secretary, told reporters. “We don't imagine one uniform system, but our goal has also been to provide tools and a network of sharing so that certain things that should be done nationally, that there are tools for that too,” such as anti-fraud tools.

Any states that do want to tap into the new application, can do so if they want, said Angelo-Asaro, as the source code of the new New Jersey application is shareable. 

“I hope other states across the country will follow our lead. This new system should be a national standard,” said Murphy. “Our job as leaders and elected officials is to help the people of our state and our nation access the benefits and services they need without any delays or headaches.”

States would have to likely work through differences in their policies, business processes and more to use New Jersey’s application, Michele Evermore, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told Nextgov/FCW

Evermore formerly served as the deputy director for policy in the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization in the U.S. Department of Labor, where she worked on these pilots in their beginning stages.

She has also studied New Jersey’s approach to modernization as part of work at the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University.

“Copying and pasting from one computer system to another is not possible. We found that out,” she said of the pilot project, noting that other states could still take lessons learned from New Jersey’s approach.

She added that leadership buy-in is a “key element here that can’t be taken for granted.”

The rollout of New Jersey’s new application comes years after the pandemic “exposed the tremendous cost of outdated technology and decades of underinvestment from Congress,” Su told reporters. 

“We've been hard at work to build a strong, modern, dependable UI system capable of delivering for workers and their families during the hardest of times,” she said. “The success of this plan will require a deeper partnership with the states and new investments from Congress.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect where Michele Evermore conducted her study of New Jersey's modernization approach.