Dept. of Labor Commissioner Says Employment Rates Are Improving

The unemployment rate in New Jersey remains at 9 percent and research has suggested that some have given up on their job searches. New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Commissioner Harold Wirths said while unemployment remains high, particularly for young job-seekers, the trend is heading in the right direction. He also explained why the Minimum Wage Commission voted to leave minimum wage at $7.25 per hour. Wirths sat down with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider to discuss these economic issues.

While Wirths said the unemployment rate in New Jersey has been 9 percent, but the state has seen six months in a row of private sector job growth. “The year before Gov. Christie came to office we had lost over 117,000 jobs. Since the governor has been in office we’ve gained 60,600 jobs so the trend is going in the right direction,” he said. “Unemployment went from a high of 9.7 percent when the governor first came into office to 9 percent. Nobody’s happy with 9 percent but the trend is going in the right direction and things are getting better.”

Wirths conceded “there’s a fair amount” of people who have given up looking for work, but he said the Garden State has a fewer people who have lost hope than in other areas. “New Jersey has one of the highest participation rates in the country,” he said. “For instance, in New Jersey we have 65 percent of the people participating in the labor workforce compared to our neighboring state of New York that has 61 percent so New Jersey actually has a lot less discouraged workers percentage wise than our neighboring state or the nation as a whole.”

Wirths explained that unemployment for youth workers from 16 to 24 is at the worst level since record keeping began, while more people older than 55 are working than ever before. He said that many people aren’t retiring for a variety of reasons. “This is stopping the hiring on the youth side so we have a lot of work to do to get the youth back to work,” he said.

Fraud with regard to collecting unemployment benefits has been a problem. Wirths said his department has taken steps to eliminate fraud and has saved taxpayers millions of dollars in the process. He explained that New Jersey checks the national directory of new hires with that of the state to keep people from cheating the unemployment system.

“The biggest type of fraud on the UI system is people who go out and get a job and then continually collect unemployment,” he said. “Now we can cross check those numbers and stop the fraud before it actually leaves the building. Very conservatively, since March of last year, we’ve saved over $100 million in fraud in that effort.”

Wirth, who serves on the Minimum Wage Commission, said that group voted 3-2 to keep minimum wage at $7.25 per hour in New Jersey. “I think right now with the tough economic times, and especially the high number of youth that are unemployed, that it would be a difficult time for the business community to absorb that increase at this time,” he said.