New Jersey was already dealing with a high unemployment rate before Hurricane Sandy hit. Now efforts are underway to turn that disaster into some employment opportunities. To assess the state’s labor market post-Sandy, NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider spoke with Harold Wirths, Commissioner of the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Wirths began the interview with news that he had just received that there were 135,000 unemployment claims filed for the month of November. He says that number is three and a half times the normal number of claims filed in a given month.
“That’s just a staggering amount, we usually have just nine or ten thousand a week,” said Wirths. He estimates that 82,000 of those claims are due to Hurricane Sandy. The deluge of claims is weighing on the system in terms of human resources.
“I have my folks working 7 in the morning till 7 at night,” he said. “They work through weekends and through holidays but we are getting through and I just ask everyone to be patient and anyone who is trying to get through, the best way to get through is the Internet.”
The state’s unemployment insurance fund has been underfunded for years as a result of both parties raiding the fund, he says.
“When the governor came in we owed about $2.1 billion,” said Wirths. “The good news is that we have gotten that down to about $700 million. The bad news is Hurricane Sandy is definitely going to have a negative impact on the UI trust fund and we’re presently borrowing from the Federal Government and probably are going to have to continue borrowing a little longer to pay these claims.”
While Wirths is confident the state will weather the UI trust fund issues, the hurricane-related unemployment may be a long-term problem.
“A lot of these shore businesses we are not sure if they are ever coming back,” he said. “Many industries couldn’t open because they didn’t have power, so those folks hopefully are back and working on being able to go forward. But no ,it’s going to be very damaging to our unemployment numbers.”
Under the current administration, the department has been striving to transform the labor department to become more of a workforce development engine. Wirths says Sandy has not disrupted those plans, and may even have helped the mission. The day after the storm, he said the department applied for a $17 million federal grant which was approved in 24 hours. Thousands have already been hired as part of the cleanup effort, he says.
“I think we have 94 people in ten counties and I’m working with the DEP to have 75 folks go help Commissioner Bob Martins to go help clean the parks, so that’s one effort that we will be able to put a thousand people back to work pretty quickly.”
The hurricane hampered labor operations greatly with departmental offices out of power.
Recalling the days after the storm, he said the department of labor didn’t even have a generator. “We had to go out and buy generators to get our systems up.” And employees who were already extended were working from morning to night processing claims. Wirths adds that challenges in processing claims included language barriers with applicants from the restaurant, hospitality and agricultural areas. He compared the experience to “getting thirty inches of snow in one night instead of spread out.” The number of claims this past month is the most received in a single month in the state’s history by far, he says.
For jobseekers affected by the storm, Wirths strongly suggests visiting the website at jobs4jersey.com to learn about the various assistance available.
“We have our jobs that are available with the $17 million I spoke about,” he said. Some self-employed individuals may be eligible for DUA insurance if they were not able to work due to the storm or their business was damaged. “All of that is on our Jobs4Jersey website.