Weekly jobless claims in New Jersey fell to their all-time, nine-month low as Gov. Phil Murphy holds out on ordering any of the mass business closures like during spring and around hard-hit parts of the country.
Weekly unemployment filings have been steadily dropping since they hovered at over 29,000 during the week ending Oct.10, according to data published today by the New Jersey Labor Department.
All told, more than 1.8 million New Jerseyans have filed for unemployment in the last nine months, as the onset of COVID-19 triggered shutdowns of any businesses which might entail the crowding of people and potential hosts.
Casinos, sit-down dining, gyms, nail and hair salons, malls, theaters, non-essential and many other types of businesses had to stay closed during the spring, though they have been allowed to operate in some form since the start of summer.
“We are thankful to see fewer New Jerseyans having filed new unemployment claims in the past several weeks and more residents having received FEMA payments,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a Wednesday statement.
“However, too many of our neighbors, family and friends continue to struggle financially because of layoffs or cuts in work hours.”
The state paid out $19.3 billion in unemployment benefits over the past nine months.
Murphy stressed that as cases, hospitalizations and fatalities rise, he would like to avoid triggering new shutdowns, after he already limited the hours that restaurants can offer indoor dining and let towns and cities enact further business restrictions.
He warned that many of those businesses might close for good if he ordered their shutdown while they still lack any federal COVID-relief. Talks to extend those programs have been held up in Washington, and their future remains uncertain in a lame duck Congress.
“You’re basically putting a bullet in them” by shutting down those businesses – such as restaurants and Main Street retail – the governor said last week. “That’s blood on our hands.
When Murphy ordered the sweeping closures in March, the state saw more than 155,000 jobless claims the week ending March 21, 206,253 claims the week after and 214,836 claims the first week of April.
“The leveling off of new claims has given us time to transition more claimants to extended benefits and to administer FEMA payments, among other things, but we continue to process new claims as they come in to get vital income-replacement benefits flowing to workers in need,” said Angela Delli-Santi, a spokesperson for the state Labor Department.
The unemployment rate shot up to a decades-long record-high of 16.6% over the spring, though it now stands at 8.2% as of October.
Should the surge continue after Thanksgiving and the governor issues new closures, the latest unemployment numbers could once again surge, suggested Michael Merrill, an economist at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.
And, he cautioned, “the economy will suffer again even if there aren’t restrictions.”
“People will pull back if the pandemic gets worse,” Merrill said. “The more we work to get the pandemic under control, the easier it is to get the economy under control.”
The state labor department faced widespread criticism for how it handled the first wave of unemployment filings, with many claimants waiting weeks or months for a single paycheck.
Staffing shortages hounded the labor department, and the unemployment system was dependent on a 60-year-old programming language known as COBOL, in order to communicate with the 40-year-old computer mainframes.
Since then, the labor department updated its programming to automate certain functions, updated its website, and added chat features, according to Delli-Santi.
Employees are able to work remotely, hundreds of labor department staff were reassigned to handle support work, and retirees were brought back as unemployment agents. The state trust fund is still healthy, she maintained, and the state is not in danger of running out of money to pay unemployment benefits.
Of the 1.47 million New Jerseyans that have qualified for unemployment, 96% of them have gotten at least one paycheck. That still leaves nearly 59,000 eligible New Jerseyans who haven’t gotten a single paycheck.
“There’s no systemic-related reason why folks aren’t getting it. It is overwhelmingly, I think it’s literally 100% at this point, specific to the individuals,” Murphy said last week.
Average wait time is three weeks, “provided that they submit a completed claim with wages earned in one state and no other complicating factors,” Delli-Santi added, which happens in just “about half of all claims.”