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Interactive Map: Labor Day Finds Many in New Jersey Jobless, Out of Benefits

Tens of thousands, many formerly employed by casinos, have maxed out on their unemployment payments

New Jersey's 4 million workers may celebrate Labor Day on Monday, but those who are unemployed -- particularly those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits -- have less to cheer about.

According to data from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, nearly 79,000 unemployed New Jerseyans had maxed out of their benefits this year through August 15. The greatest proportion -- more than 14,000 -- stopped collecting unemployment in March, with a good number of those being former casino employees who lost their jobs when three casinos shut their doors last September.

The largest number of the unemployed who have lost their benefits, 7,619, live in Essex County. But the greatest impact of the losses is in Atlantic and Cape May counties, where the number of people who can no longer collect unemployment amounts to almost 5 percent of the total work force. Again, the casino closures are largely to blame.

Typically, New Jerseyans who lose their jobs can collect unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks, depending on several factors, including how long they had worked prior to being laid off.

Beginning in the midst of the last recession, Congress approved and the president signed payment extensions for the long-term unemployed for five years. That enabled some unemployed people to collect a portion of their former salary for as long as 99 weeks.

But the last extension ended in the first week of January 2014 after the House balked at continuing the assistance. At that time, about 1.6 million Americans, including more than 90,000 New Jerseyans, lost their emergency benefits.

It's now been 20 months since those who are out of work have been able to get a benefits extension -- and that is hurting many people in New Jersey, where unemployment remains higher than the national average. In the Atlantic City area, in particular, there are few places where former casino workers can find comparable employment.

"Thanks to its lagging economic recovery, New Jersey continues to have among the highest shares of long-term unemployed residents of all the states," said Jon Whiten, deputy director of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank.

"When these hundreds of thousands of folks lose unemployment benefits, they and their families suffer immediate damage, as does the state's economy," Whiten said. "But it's worse - lengthy unemployment stints often become a trap that is hard to escape from, as the negative consequences of long-term joblessness build over time and make it more difficult for workers to obtain suitable jobs. Congress' failure to extend these benefits in late 2014 was harmful to struggling workers across the country, but it has hit workers in slowly recovering states like New Jersey the hardest."

According to Kerri Gatling, spokeswoman for the NJDLWD, the maximum unemployment payment in the state is $646 per week and the average paid through July of this year was $389 a week.

The most recent employment estimates present a seasonally-adjusted of 5.9 percent in July, which was .2 percent lower than the June rate. However, the state lost about 13,600 jobs during the same time period, meaning the drop in the unemployment rate was due to a decline in the size of the workforce -- almost 15,000 people stopped looking for work between June and July.

According to unadjusted data, Cumberland and Atlantic counties had the highest unemployment rates, at 9.3 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively, with 6,200 out of work in Cumberland and 12,200 unemployed in Atlantic.

Atlantic County is completing an economic development strategy and action plan designed to help it recover from the casino bust. The Atlantic County Action Now report is set to be unveiled later this month.

“Our goal is to broaden and diversify Atlantic County’s economic base in order to attract good jobs with good pay and create economic synergy,” said Dennis Levinson, the Atlantic County executive. “ We can no longer rely on a single industry to sustain our regional economy ... (the plan) points to an overriding need for diversification and identifies target industries and best practices with guidelines for implementation. Most important, it calls for private sector leadership and regional economic development.”

Long-term unemployment with no additional benefits available can sink families into poverty.

“Hunger, homelessness, and barriers to good paying jobs cause immediate harm, and reflect imbalance in our social system,” Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said last week. “But the good news is that poverty does not have to continue to stagnate. We can implement policies to ensure access to opportunity and make common-sense investments in solutions that we know work.”

The APN has launched a campaign to get Assembly candidates to pledge that, if elected, they will work to prevent, reduce and end poverty in their districts and throughout the state.

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