State’s Labor Chief Suggests Employment Picture Looks Brighter in Perspective

While jobless rate rises again, he tells Senate panel that longer-term numbers are more encouraging than monthly snapshots

New Jersey’s unemployment rate ticked upward again last month as a result of more job losses, but the head of the state Department of Labor urged lawmakers yesterday to take a longer view.

Monthly figures are often revised, and it takes more time to get a full picture of how the state economy is faring, said Labor Commissioner Harold Wirths during an afternoon hearing of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

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He cited more thorough benchmarking conducted by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics that revealed more impressive jobs gains than the monthly unemployment surveys originally showed for both 2013 and 2014.

“You rarely see anything in the press about it, but each monthly survey is often off the mark, and the data gets adjusted in the following months,” Wirths told lawmakers.

“We have had a steady drop in the unemployment rate almost every month since mid-2012, rather than the higher, volatile ups and downs the monthly reports had previously suggested,” he said.

Still, his comments on the unemployment measurements came on the same day that his department announced the state had lost 6,400 jobs in March. Though February figures were revised upward, helping to push the state to a net gain of 7,800 jobs since January, the March losses were enough to push the unemployment rate up to 6.5 percent, which is now a full point higher than the national average.

And that uptick in the unemployment rate comes just as Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who took office in early 2010, is trying to raise his profile as a possible presidential contender in 2016 with a series of events in New Hampshire a series of events in New Hampshire.

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But Wirths cautioned lawmakers yesterday to also put the state’s overall job numbers in perspective, saying New Jersey has struggled with the impact of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and the closure last year of several casinos in Atlantic City.

In all, the state added nearly 45,000 jobs from March 2014 to March 2015, dropping unemployment from 6.8 percent to its current level.

“The long-term data shows New Jersey experiencing steady improvements, steady employment growth and a steady decline in unemployment despite Sandy and the changing casino industry in Atlantic City,” Wirths said.

“I am not saying we are done here, we have more work to do,” Wirths said. “I am as impatient as anyone for the day when we can talk about New Jersey’s unemployment rate being lower than the national rate.”

The casino closures alone caused an additional 6,500 people to sign up for unemployment, he said.

But Wirths said his department is using a $29 million federal grant to help assist those in the Atlantic City region who are now looking for jobs.

“We will help every possible worker we can who has been laid off because of the casino closings in Atlantic City,” he said.

Wirths also delivered some good news yesterday, saying the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund is back to having a positive balance following reforms approved in 2010. Years of raids totaling more than $4.5 billion, by governors of both parties, had left it with a deficit just as the last recession hit – which meant that the fund, which pays for unemployment benefits, was dry just as the unemployment rolls were building.

The state had to borrow from the federal government just to keep making unemployment payments.

One of the reforms banned future raids of the fund, which receives revenue from employer and employee payroll taxes.

The state has also cracked down on unemployment insurance fraud to save an estimated $800 million, he said.

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“By returning the fund to the black, we are reducing the financial burdens on the very people we are relying on for new jobs,” Wirths said. “We plan to keep it solvent.”

Most of the lawmakers on the panel were kind to Wirths, choosing not to hammer him personally over the jobs numbers.

But they also pressed him for answers on what’s being done in pockets of the state where unemployment remains higher than both the New Jersey and national averages.

They raised concerns about job-training and re-entry for those recently incarcerated, as well as cases where employers say they are only looking to hire those who already have a job.

And at one point, Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) asked Wirths to identify the individual unemployment rates for several communities in his South Jersey district that were well above the state’s rate.

“I don’t want us to be forgotten about,” Van Drew said. “We have a lot work to do.”

He said if the state could tackle the unemployment rate in his district it would also go a long way toward lowering the state’s overall jobless numbers.

Wirths said one initiative that may help is a new $2.5 million program aimed at using New Jersey libraries as “access points” for the department’s workforce services. Library staff will also be trained to help those seeking jobs, he said.

The department is also providing grants to 10 libraries for literacy and basic-skills training, he said.