NJ proposes tougher rules for jobless benefits

March 15, 2013 12:47:59 PM PDT
A proposal to tighten New Jersey's unemployment rules has turned into a political battle between Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Sen. Barbara Buono.

Christie wants to curtail benefits fraud. Buono says the proposed new restrictions would be unfair to poor residents.

The proposed rule change puts teeth into a requirement that people collecting unemployment benefits actively look for work by allowing benefits to be suspended for any week in which a claimant doesn't seek a job.

The rule requires beneficiaries to register for work and participate in job-seeking activities in addition to reporting every two weeks for benefits.

The current system requires unemployed people to certify their job search by answering a few questions when reporting for benefits, but there is no way to enforce the job-seeking requirement.

Buono, who is running for governor against Christie, testified against the proposal at a public hearing Friday. She said a requirement that jobless residents register for work online would be unfair to the 20 percent or so who lacked a home computer.

She said requiring them to go to the library or to government-run career center could be equally burdensome to those who don't drive, live in rural areas, can't afford mass transit, or live in communities where budget cuts have forced libraries to close or trim their hours.

However, the Labor Department said it would be flexible for those without computers, and the Christie administration said people without computers would be able to register for work by phone or in person, the same options now available to when reporting for benefits.

More than two-thirds of benefits renewals occur online, according to the Labor Department.

Unemployment is at 9.6 percent in New Jersey, and has been above 9 percent since Christie took office in January 2010. However, New Jersey has recouped the jobs shed during the tenure of Christie's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.

The only person to testify besides Buono was Stefanie Riehl of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, which supports the proposal. Riehl said at a time when 75 percent of households have computers, it's appropriate that unemployment claimants meet their work search requirements by using online sites like Jobs4Jersey.com.

The public comment period extends through April. If the rule is adopted, it likely would go into effect around July 1.