“Last April, our workers were in dire straits,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in testimony earlier this month to 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 on every corner.”
From there, the Labor Commissioner ticked off 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, it’s never been a better time to be a worker in New Jersey, and I know we can keep driving this progress together,” Asaro-Angelo said.
Despite his optimism about where things stand, most of the members of the Assembly Budget Committee seemed skeptical. The commissioner faced a three-hour grilling from lawmakers about the delays in processing unemployment claims during the pandemic, as well as questions on why his department’s budget should be more than doubled to $15 million.
Asaro-Angelo blamed the processing delays and backlogs on the high volume, combined with outdated systems in need of upgrades and stringent federal guidelines.
“We’re fully aware of the difficulties workers face during the UI process, often with federal requirements that go along with it – mandates like weekly certification questions, which have pended over 2 million claims since COVID, and still halt about 5,000 claims weekly,” he said. “We’re working continuously to make the process better; but, we’re balancing on a tightrope: while we want to make it as easy and quick as possible, we must also comply with state and federal laws before we can make a payment.”
Asaro-Angelo credited his staff, who he said are often under-appreciated, career employees, for doing the work to keep things afloat during the pandemic.
“They’re the ones who’ve helped New Jersey consistently lead the country in the number of approved claims, and importantly, in a little over two years, paid out almost $38 billion dollars in benefits to over 1.6 million New Jerseyans – that’s almost an entire year’s state budget,” Asaro-Angelo pointed out.
The commissioner added that UI claim numbers are now at lows not seen since 2019, which has allowed his staff to shift their focus to the modernization of the state’s outdated systems.
So, while the numbers say 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 challenges to contend with.
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 also keeping the economy up and running was a real challenge for policymakers,” Vachon said. “I think New Jersey has done a good job in both regards, offering a decent balance to a seemingly impossible-to-solve equation.”
Vachon said workplace health and safety remains a challenge in many customer-facing industries.
“A dearth of ‘good jobs’ with full-time hours, regular schedules, livable wages, and fringe benefits is keeping many workers from returning to the workforce,” Vachon explained. “It is also driving 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 tremendous challenge. High levels of inflation disproportionately harm lower-income New Jerseyans.”
Inflation, of course, is causing disruption and pain across the economy. Businesses have voiced concerns about hiring difficulties, as they deal with their own increased costs and now face competition to attract and keep top talent, especially with the New Jersey unemployment rate down to 4.2% and the national rate at 3.6%.
Vachon said that the U.S. labor market often undervalued the work performed by those essential occupations, especially in customer-facing industries like service and retail.
“Very profitable companies have reaped the benefits of rising worker productivity for decades without increasing wages,” Vachon said. “The chickens have now come home to roost, and those on top of the economic pyramid may have to tighten up their belts in the way they have asked workers to do time and again over the course of the past several recessions.”
Meanwhile, a recent report from the Rutgers Center for Women and Work examined how the pandemic affected child care access, employment and earnings for New Jersey women.
The 72-page report, called 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 determined that many women are cutting back on hours or working part-time instead, often to watch their children or care for an aging parent.
“This is the part of the ‘She-cession’ that no one is talking about,” said Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. “Labor force participation rates among women have largely recovered in New Jersey, but that’s only part of the story. Thousands of women are sacrificing full-time employment, higher wages, health insurance, and other benefits for the flexibility to care for young children and aging parents.”
Many women earning less than $50,000, according to the findings, cut their work hours (20.5%), left their job (14.6%), or took unpaid leave (13.2%) because of child care disruptions.
The report also concluded that there is a huge wage gap for frontline essential workers, with men averaging more than $56,000 while the average is closer to $40,000 in those roles.
As for ways to improve conditions for New Jersey women and their families, researchers recommended improving child care access and affordability, enacting a state-level child tax credit, strengthening housing protections, enhancing access to preventative health care and mental health services, and providing more support for domestic violence survivors, who experienced a higher rate of homelessness during the pandemic.
All these factors add up to an improving, but complicated, situation in the Garden State, with many headwinds remaining. The April jobs report, due out soon, will provide a more complete picture of New Jersey’s economic recovery.
“And though our state has almost fully recovered, we persist in our efforts to improve services,” said Asaro-Angelo. “We know the stories of folks in dire situations in need of help. We’ve cried with them over the phone, and worked late nights and early morning to get their cases resolved. The uncertainty of losing your job is scary, and I wish there was an emergency button I could push to get everyone the help they need immediately.”
“Compared to other states, New Jersey did a decent job of ensuring that workplaces were safe,” Vachon said. “Our minimum wage and 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 that recent hearing by saying his department is trying to improve every day.
“We’d be doing a disservice to those who suffered during the pandemic if we didn’t learn from this experience and prepare for the future so they never have to go through this again,” said Asaro-Angelo.