The state is offering to pay for $500 return-to-work bonuses, and to subsidize $10,000 in wages for businesses that take on workers switching into a new industry, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday afternoon.
Both moves are part of an effort to stymie months of hiring shortages that have afflicted business owners in the restaurant, hospitality and retail sectors as they attempt to recover from the COVID-19 recession.
Many employers had hoped for a wave of job applicants after the weekly $300 in federal unemployment relief expired on Sept. 4, but that has not come to be. Moreover, enterprise hiring bonuses have had a muted effect on applicant numbers, business owners said.
But Murphy said he was confident that the addition of “cash on the barrel,” combined with an opportunity to acquire job skills in a new, better-paying industry would be enough to lure workers.
The “Return & Earn” program will, according to Murphy, “assist unemployed workers in their return to work” and “help small businesses fill the positions they need to fill to grow, thrive.” It would be run by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which will offer more program details in the near future. Murphy said the program would start out as a $10 million pilot program, which would be paid out by the $6.4 billion of federal funds under the American Rescue Plan.
“We know that there are good jobs out there just waiting to be filled,” Murphy said during his COVID-19 press briefing on Sept. 27. “Our hope is that Return & Earn will make it easier, and faster, for employers to connect with potential employees and to bring them on board.
Those workers getting a job through Return & Earn would receive the $500 bonus on their first paycheck, and it would come on top of any other bonuses or benefits that employers are offering, according to the governor.
“We know that returning to work comes with some of its own costs – the costs of transportation or childcare, for example – and this benefit is designed to help workers meet these costs,” Murphy said.
A second piece of Return & Earn calls for the state to offer $10,000 in wage subsidies for the hiring and training of new employees “with identifiable skills gaps.”
The state would cover 50% of wages of employees for their first six months on the job, when they are getting on-the-job training and spending most of their time with on-boarding and upskilling.
Workers need to be paid at least $15 an hour to count, and they need to work full-time: a minimum of 32 hours a week, according to a statement from Murphy’s office.
Eligibility would be limited to companies with up to 100 employees with the reimbursement capped at $10,000 per employee, and $40,000 per company.
“[E]mployers, especially small businesses, also face challenges in the recovery. They face a challenge in finding the workers they need and investing in training them,” Murphy said. “[M]any small businesses, especially start-ups, simply do not have the resources to support new hires who need on-the-job training.”
Garden State Initiative, a conservative group, was still critical of Murphy, saying that the governor should have rolled out such a program during the summer tourism season when it would have provided greater help to businesses along the Jersey Shore.
“Today’s announcement that NJ will be offering bonuses to get workers to return to the employment ranks is a few months too late,” the organization said in a tweet. “The Shore season has ended and businesses lost out on opportunities to rebuild.”
Still, other business and employer trade groups felt that the program could in fact make a difference.
In a statement from Murphy’s office, Michele Siekerka, who heads the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, called the Return & Earn program a “good start” for addressing labor shortages as the state and its private sector work “toward continued holistic approaches to further address the future of work in New Jersey.”
Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying it was an appropriate use of ARP funds, and that it was being invested in the state’s business community to help accelerate our economic recovery.”
“[A]dditional investment of American Rescue Plan dollars in business-focused programs like these will generate a more robust and sustainable economic recovery in New Jersey,” he added.
John Harmon, who heads the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, called it a “win-win for both employers and employees.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:01 p.m. EST on Sept. 27, 2021, to include remarks from Garden State Initiative.
This story was updated at 8:16 a.m. EST on Sept. 28, 2021. A previous version of this article stated that the state would cover wages of employees for their first six months on the job; that was incorrect – the state will cover 50% of wages. Additionally, workers must be paid at least $15 an hour to count, and be full-time employees. Additional remarks from Michele Siekerka, Tom Bracker and John Harmon were also added.
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