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State of New Jersey’s Strong Labor Force and Economic Growth

Bolstered by a strong monthly jobs report, New Jersey’s labor commissioner told lawmakers Thursday that small businesses are thriving and the state’s labor force is as robust as ever. New Jersey added nearly 14,000 jobs last month, with seven out of nine industries seeing growth, including the construction, manufacturing and transportation sectors, according to new jobs data released by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The monthly gains pushed the state’s total number of employed residents close to 4.4 million — which is “the highest on record,” Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo told members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee during a public meeting in Trenton. In all, more than 80,000 jobs have been added in New Jersey over the last year, even as the unemployment rate has risen from 4% to 4.8% since March 2023. Asaro-Angelo said New Jersey has also seen a big increase in the number of small employers although the state has enacted policies like a higher minimum wage and expanded paid leave for workers, which have sometimes been portrayed as punitive for businesses.

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Upgrading Unemployment Insurance System

The commissioner’s appearance before the committee comes as lawmakers continue to scrutinize a nearly $56 billion budget Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Under the state Constitution, the governor proposes an annual spending plan, including for executive-branch departments like Asaro-Angelo’s, but it’s up to lawmakers to draft an appropriations bill each year by the start of the new fiscal year. In recent years, concerns about the state’s unemployment insurance system have been a key topic of discussion after it was inundated with claims for benefits during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asaro-Angelo highlighted ongoing efforts by his department to oversee enhanced protections for workers. Asaro-Angelo said a system that has been bogged down by decades-old computer programming is now entering a new era of technology after recent investments. This includes using generative artificial intelligence to help block fraud attempts.

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Enforcing Regulations for Worker Protections

For the millions of residents who are employed in New Jersey, Asaro-Angelo highlighted ongoing efforts by his department to oversee enhanced protections for workers enacted during the Murphy administration, including the enforcement of employee misclassification regulations. In all, roughly $7 million has been returned to 3,400 workers following the adoption of a 2021 misclassification law, Asaro-Angelo said. Another $27 million in back wages owed to workers in New Jersey were returned in 2023, setting a record for a single year.

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“The work we’re doing here is setting the tone not just for our state, but for the entire nation, with wide-ranging, far-reaching impacts that are measured not just through dollars and data, but the fulfillment and satisfaction of millions of workers being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve,” Asaro-Angelo said. And while New Jersey’s unemployment rate remained a full percentage point higher than the national jobless rate in March, Asaro-Angelo faced questions from several lawmakers about labor shortages that persist in numerous industries and regions of the state. That suggests there’s still room for improvement, even as New Jersey’s overall workforce appears robust. “In the end, all we can do is keep growing our workforce,” he said. “We have so many different training programs, whether it be the vocational schools, or private career schools like Lincoln Tech, or our apprenticeship programs. Quite frankly, as successful as many of them are, they’re all competing for the same people to come into their programs,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We, as a state, have to do whatever we can to develop a fulsome workforce for everybody, but it’s certainly a challenge,” he said.

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