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NJ job market is improving, but earnings are uneven

“I can say unequivocally that now has never been a better time to work in New Jersey, and I know that we can continue to advance this progress together,” said the New Jersey Department of Labor Commissioner, Robert Asaro-Angelo, shown here May 7. , 2020. – RICH HUNDLEY, THE TRENTONIAN

“Last April, our workers were in dire straits,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in testimony earlier this month before the Assembly Budget Committee. “The unemployment rate was 7.7% and our workforce was barely half of its pre-pandemic levels. Today the rate is down to 4.2% – lower than our neighboring states of Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania,” Asaro-Angelo continued. “And we’ve recovered 96% of private sector jobs – slightly above the national average – and employers are hiring around every corner.”

From there, the labor commissioner ticked off the accomplishments and challenges his department still faces as the state emerges from the pandemic, acknowledging that there is still a lot of catching up to do.

“I can say unequivocally that now has never been a better time to work in New Jersey, and I know we can continue to drive this progress forward together,” Asaro-Angelo said.

Despite his optimism about the state of affairs, most members of the Assembly’s Budget Committee seemed skeptical. The commissioner faced a three-hour discussion from lawmakers about delays in processing unemployment claims during the pandemic, as well as questions about why his department’s budget should be more than doubled to $15 million.

Asaro-Angelo blamed the processing delays and backlogs on high volume, combined with outdated systems requiring upgrades and strict federal guidelines.

“We are fully aware of the difficulties that workers face during the unemployment insurance process, often with the accompanying federal requirements – warrants like weekly certification questions, which have put more than 2 on hold. million requests since COVID, and are still stopping around 5,000 requests per week,” he said. “We are constantly working to improve the process; but, we are balancing on a tightrope: while we want to make it as easy and as possible, we must also comply with state and federal laws before we can make a payment.

Asaro-Angelo thanked his staff, who he says are often underestimated career workers, for doing the work to keep things afloat during the pandemic.

“They are the ones who have helped New Jersey consistently lead the nation in approved claims and, most importantly, in just over two years, they have paid out nearly $38 billion in benefits to more than 1.6 million New Jerseyans — that’s almost an entire year’s state budget,” Asaro-Angelo pointed out.

The commissioner added that the number of unemployment insurance claims is now at a level not seen since 2019, which has allowed his staff to focus on modernizing outdated state systems.

So while the numbers indicate that the labor market has recovered much of its pandemic losses, it is also clear that there is a new normal, with new trends and new challenges ahead.

Todd Vachon, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University, said the state’s job recovery has been slow but steady.

“The difficult task of balancing public health while keeping the economy running smoothly was a real challenge for policymakers,” Vachon said. “I think New Jersey did a good job on both counts, providing a decent balance to a seemingly impossible equation to solve.”

Vachon said occupational health and safety remains a challenge in many customer-facing industries.

“A shortage of ‘good jobs’ with full-time hours, regular schedules, decent wages and benefits is preventing many workers from returning to the workforce,” Vachon explained. “It is also leading to an increase in collective action, including work stoppages by those who remain employed as they try to improve their wages and working conditions. Income inequality remains a huge challenge. High levels of inflation disproportionately hurt low-income New Jerseyans.

Inflation, of course, causes disruption and suffering throughout the economy. Businesses have expressed concern over hiring challenges as they face rising costs and now face competition to attract and retain top talent, especially with New Jersey’s unemployment rate at 4.2% and the national rate at 3.6%.

Vachon said the U.S. job market often undervalues ​​the work done by these essential occupations, especially in customer-facing industries like service and retail.

“Highly profitable companies have reaped the benefits of increased worker productivity for decades without raising wages,” Vachon said. “The chickens have now come home to roost, and those at the top of the economic pyramid may have to tighten their belts as they have asked workers to do time and time again during recent recessions.”

Meanwhile, a recent report from the Rutgers Center for Women and Work looked at how the pandemic has affected access to child care, employment and earnings for women in New Jersey.

The 72-page report, titled The Status of Women in New Jersey, found that most New Jersey women are back to work, but not necessarily back to normal. The study found that many women reduced their hours or worked part-time instead, often to watch their children or care for an aging parent.

“That’s the part of the ‘She-cession’ that nobody talks about,” said Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. “Labour force participation rates for women have largely recovered in New Jersey, but that’s only part of the story. Thousands of women are sacrificing full-time jobs, higher wages, health insurance and other benefits for the ability to care for young children and aging parents.

Many women earning less than $50,000, according to the results, reduced their working hours (20.5%), quit their job (14.6%) or took unpaid leave (13.2%) due to interruptions in childcare.

The report also concluded that there is a huge pay gap for frontline essential workers, with men earning an average of more than $56,000 while the average is closer to $40,000 in these roles.

Regarding ways to improve conditions for New Jersey women and their families, the researchers recommended improving access and affordability of child care, enacting a tax credit children’s rights at the state level, strengthen housing protections, improve access to preventive health care and mental health services, and provide more support for victims of domestic violence, who have experienced a higher rate of homelessness during the pandemic.

All of these factors add up to an improving, but complicated, situation in the Garden State, with many headwinds remaining. The April jobs report, to be released soon, will provide a more complete picture of New Jersey’s economic recovery.

“And although our condition has almost fully recovered, we persist in our efforts to improve services,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We know the stories of people in difficult situations who need help. We cried with them on the phone and worked late at night and early in the morning to resolve their case. The uncertainty of losing your job is scary, and I wish there was an emergency button to press so everyone gets the help they need right away.

“Compared to other states, New Jersey has done a decent job of keeping workplaces safe,” Vachon said. “Our minimum wage and our social safety net are better than most other states, but our cost of living is higher. Affordable housing is an important area for future investment.

The commissioner concluded his remarks at this recent hearing by saying that his department is trying to improve every day.

“We would be doing a disservice to those who have suffered during the pandemic if we don’t learn from this experience and prepare for the future so they never have to experience this again,” Asaro said. -Angelo.

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