Business groups question Murphy’s timeline for labor shortage relief (updated)

Daniel J. Munoz//November 16, 2021

Business groups question Murphy’s timeline for labor shortage relief (updated)

Daniel J. Munoz//November 16, 2021

Some of the state’s chief business groups are lamenting what they feel is a snail’s pace for the roll-out of several programs meant to alleviate months of hiring shortages affecting employers.

Michele Siekerka, president and CEO, NJBIA.

“There were announcements of programs made, but we don’t have transparency to where that money is out on the street yet,” Michele Siekerka, who heads the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, told NJBIZ following a Nov. 16 panel at the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City.

Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, largely agreed with Siekerka, saying the administration had a habit of biting off more than it can chew.

“That’s the last four years – this administration creates a lot of programs, but try to follow up and try to access the programs – it’s extremely difficult,” Bracken said during the panel. “If everything the governor talked about these last four years was easily implemented, we’d be light years ahead of where we are right now.”

Two such programs were highlighted that rely on federal pandemic-relief funds: $700 million to bolster the state’s child care industry, and the $10 million “Return & Earn” pilot program, under which the state would subsidize both hiring bonuses and training wages for workers entering a new industry.

With the Return & Earn program, interested employers currently only have the option to fill out a form of interest, and are told they will be followed up with once more information is available.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the administration has implemented several programs to support working families and help them get back on their feet,” Christine Lee, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy’s office, said in a statement. “We are proud of these investments and will continue to provide the necessary assistance for New Jerseyans to meet the changing needs moving forward.”

Siekerka added that it would be reasonable to expect the Murphy administration to be able to hit the ground running with these programs shortly after they’re announced, or at least provide a solid timeline.

“Operationalizing these programs has to be a priority right now,” she added. “Has that money gotten out on the street yet? Who is benefiting from it? Is it oversubscribed?”

Roadblocks to return

The Murphy administration intends to use the $700 million to subsidize the costs for parents to pay for child care, to provide hiring bonuses, and to give out other grants to help keep child care centers afloat.

Tom Bracken, president and CEO, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Business groups contend that child care – or lack of it – is itself a major reason why many people are not opting to return to work.

The administration said $427 million of grants to child care providers will go out “in the coming weeks,” without specifying a timeline.

“That industry is decimated and if we can’t get our kids back into child care by lifting up that workforce … it is a big part of the hiring crisis,” Siekerka said. “If that money isn’t getting out on the street when it was announced over a month ago, then when can we expect it to come?”

According to the administration, 3,656 businesses had shown interest in the program as of Nov. 8; the state Labor Department reached out to 3,631 of those employers to go over the program benefits and requirements.

With holiday shopping season all but here, labor experts and economists have warned that the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors could face a major crunch because of the hiring shortages.

The governor contended that the combination of the added bonus, plus the ability to get subsidies to enter an entirely new industry, could be just enough to compel people to get back into the workforce.

Many employers NJBIZ interviewed were pessimistic, saying that they did not expect the program to turn their fortunes.

This story was updated at 7:20 a.m. EST on Nov. 17, 2021 to add comments and statistics from the Murphy administration.