Many of those claimants have burned through the remaining 13 weeks of extended benefits, which kicked in after they used another 49 weeks of federal and state pandemic-relief unemployment assistance the week ending Sept. 4, according to a Dec. 9 statement from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
The federal jobless relief programs were enacted in March 2020, as the spread of COVID-19 pandemic prompted many states to completely shut down their economies.
Unemployment soared, and state labor officials estimate they’ve distributed $37 billion to more than 1.5 million recipients during the nearly two years of the pandemic. New Jersey still has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, 7% as of October.
The state Labor Department is offering several return-to-work assistance programs, such as help with job searches, resume-writing, interviewing skills, and education and training.
“Our team now stands ready to help these workers re-enter the workforce by finding meaningful, dignified, sustained employment,” Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a statement.
Initial expectations in the spring and early summer were that once the federal $300 weekly unemployment relief checks ran out in early September, many people would return to the office, or to their retail, restaurant or other hospitality jobs. But the effect was muted at best.
A recent survey by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association found that 3 in 4 employers – 73% – have faced hiring shortages over the past year. Many reluctantly raised wages in order to attract workers.
Labor rights groups said they fear that the loss in benefits could be a blow for workers staying out of the workplace in search of higher pay, and better health and safety standards.
“The end of extended unemployment benefits won’t stop the spread or the virus or generate child care availability,” said Peter Chen, a policy analyst with the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
A Nov. 30 report by the U.S Chamber of Commerce found that 29% of workers have not returned to the office because of concerns about COVID-19, while 28% have prioritized their health over work and 26% said the wages in their industry were not high enough.
“People want to work. They just want compensation for their labor,” said Naomi R, Williams, a labor professor at Rutgers University. And the COVID-19 pandemic “laid bare” the reality of many working for wages and benefits that “do not provide for them and their families.”
“Workers are seeing companies bring in record profits, and yet they are still struggling to meet their family’s needs,” she said in an email.
Chen added that the loss of that income from the extended unemployment benefits “means families will have less to spend on groceries, rent, and basic needs that keep the economy moving.”
Angela Deli-Santi, a spokesperson for the state Labor Department, noted that the state still offers assistance with rent and heating bills and food.
Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the NJBIA, said that the loss in some “discretionary spending” could mean a bump in state employment levels.
“However, it’s also clear there are numerous reasons why some people aren’t coming back to work – and those include childcare issues, the need for some workers to reskill, workers looking for change in direction in their careers, and remaining considerations about COVID,” she said in an email.
The U.S Chamber report found that 24% of workers and 32% of women cited child and dependent care as their main reason for not returning to work.
As of last month, the state awarded more than $500,000 to 60 separate businesses through the $10 million “Return and Earn” program, under which the state subsidizes $500 hiring bonuses to new workers, and up to $40,000 in training-wages for workers entering a new industry.
And the state is putting up $700 million to subsidize the child care industry and the cost for parents, as well as expanding a state tax credit program in which it essentially takes on the child care costs borne by parents so that they can return to work.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]