Thursday’s favorable national employment report seemed to skip South Jersey, where a delay in the return of indoor dining kept some restaurants and bars closed and left many people still without work.
“For Atlantic and Cape May counties, this season is going to be lost. I don’t know what else to say,” said economic consultant Rich Perniciaro, who has been studying South Jersey’s economy for decades. “For small restaurants, it’s deadly. It just is.”
The U.S. Labor Department reported the nation gained 4.8 million jobs in June and the unemployment rate fell to 11.1% from 13.3% in May.
Atlantic County’s unemployment rate has been more than twice the national average throughout the pandemic.
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Unemployment was 32.4% in the Atlantic City-to-Hammonton area in May, according to Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which released May metropolitan area data Wednesday. Local data releases lag national numbers by about a month.
The Atlantic City-Hammonton metro area, which encompasses virtually all of Atlantic County, hit an all-time high of 33.3% unemployment in April, according to the BLS. That’s when the nation also hit its COVID-19 high jobless rate of 14.4%.
Atlantic has been the only county in the state to exceed 30% unemployment during the pandemic, due to the total closing of the casino industry that dominates the area.
Some casinos reopened Thursday, but at 25% capacity and without the ability to serve food or drinks indoors after Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday reversed his decision to allow indoor dining to restart. It remains to be seen how many casino workers will be able to work consistently under such restrictions.
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Perniciaro is in Florida now, he said, where restaurants and even beaches are being closed due to strong resurgence of the new coronavirus. It is not out of the question that beaches may have to close again in New Jersey, he said.
There are also warnings that the nation’s economic picture may not be as rosy as Thursday’s report suggests.
“The number of jobs in the U.S. is still almost 15 million below the February level,” according to a Thursday news release by the Conference Board, a nonpartisan think tank. “The increase in jobs is simply due to the reopening of many states’ economies. The big question is whether the increase in employment will continue.”
But as 35 states are seeing a rise in new COVID-19 cases, momentum is likely to slow or reverse as many states tighten restrictions again.
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“In sum, the grim reality is that the unemployment rate may remain in the 11%-15% range for the foreseeable future,” the Conference Board concluded.
In the week ending June 27, New Jersey workers filed almost 28,000 initial unemployment claims — a 15% decrease from the prior week, the state reported.
Nationally, another 1.4 million people filed new claims, the U.S. DOL reported.
The total number of new state claims over the past 15 weeks now stands at about 1.3 million, according to the state.
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Unemployed or underemployed New Jersey workers have received more than $9 billion in state and federal payments since the pandemic began shutting down businesses in mid-March, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“Of those who have applied, 1,125,021 have met the earnings requirements to receive benefits, and 96% of those have received payment,” said a Thursday Labor Department news release.
The Labor Department also said this week it would begin providing 20 weeks of extended unemployment to New Jersey workers who exhaust state and federal jobless benefits.
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The state extension kicks in after claimants exhaust up to 26 weeks of state unemployment plus 13 weeks of federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, for a maximum of 59 weeks of benefits.
Claimants are automatically enrolled into extended benefits as their federal extension ends, according to the state DOL. They do not need to contact an agent or reapply, but they do need to continue certifying.
Perniciaro has prepared reports on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties and is working on a report for Salem County, he said.
He said Atlantic and Cape May counties have been deeply wounded, while Cumberland has fared better.
“You can see Cumberland has done best because its main industries are food processing and manufacturing,” Perniciaro said. “It has held up pretty well. It has very little leisure and hospitality.”