Written by
MICHAEL L. DIAMOND
Staff Writer   as reported by MyCentralJersey.com
TRENTON — Speaking on a panel before a group of business leaders last month, Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce must have thought his remarks that the state’s unemployment benefits were too generous would resonate with the audience.

They may have. But soon after the New Jersey Business and Industry Association panel discussion ended, The Associated Press reported his comments to a wider audience, including his observation that jobless benefits “are too good for these people” and don’t provide enough incentive to return to work.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who also was a panelist, fumed. DeCroce the next day tried to apologize, if not to his Democratic colleagues, at least to unemployed workers.

“My comments were made to a gathering of business leaders and I wanted to convey the need to fix a system that is on the verge of collapse,” he said in a statement. “I wanted to emphasize that there are individuals who are gaming the system (and) contributing to its current state.”

That system is broken. For the third consecutive year, New Jersey likely won’t have enough money to pay benefits to jobless workers, forcing it to borrow from the federal government.

It leaves employers facing another payroll tax increase. It leaves business and labor leaders to hash out ways to improve the unemployment system and keep their constituents satisfied. And it leaves observers hoping that the state will address the root of the problem: the recession and slow recovery, and the state’s history of diverting revenue intended for the unemployment trust fund to the general treasury.

“I think there was an implication (in DeCroce’s remarks) that people who collect unemployment have an entitlement mentality,” said John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, a Livingston-based organization that advises employers.

“I disagree with that. I don’t think they’re too generous. It insures two-thirds of someone’s wages. Are there a few people who would rather just collect unemployment? Yeah, there are always a few people who are trying to game the system. But you can’t attack the system just because there are a few people gaming it.”

DeCroce’s desire to see benefits cut doesn’t appear to be gaining traction.

A state task force is expected to recommend keeping unemployment benefits at their current levels.

Workers who lose their jobs this year through no fault of their own are entitled to receive two-thirds of their wages, up to $598 a week. The top benefit fell from $600 last year because the state’s average wage in 2009, used to determine benefits, declined for the first time in 40 years.

The money for jobless benefits comes from an unemployment trust fund financed by taxes on employers and workers. The amount employers pay depends on how often their workers file claims. It ranges this year from .4 percent to 5.4 percent of wages up to $29,600 per employee. Employees pay .38 percent of their gross pay on wages up to $29,600 — a maximum of $113.22 a year.

The tax is meant to help workers such as Cherlyn Jackson, 46, of Asbury Park, who lost her child care job more than a year ago. She quickly dismissed the notion that the benefits were generous enough for her to stay home and kick up her feet.

What was life like on unemployment?

“Hard. Trust me, hard,” Jackson said recently at the state’s One-Stop Career Center in Neptune. “It’s like you’re waiting on that check to come to make ends meet. But you still have to borrow from someone and then pay them back. You fall further behind.”

“You don’t see one smiling face around here,” she said. “Look around.”

New Jersey’s insolvent unemployment trust fund is a product of its own making. Lawmakers from 1992 to 2006 diverted $4.6 billion from the fund to pay for other programs, leaving it on thin ice if the unemployment rate were to soar unexpectedly.

The economy collapsed in late 2007, and the unemployment rate climbed from 4.5 percent in December 2007 to 10 percent two years later, a 33-year high. It was 9.2 percent in November, according to the most recent statistics.

The result: New Jersey in 2009 paid $3.2 billion in benefits and collected $1.9 billion in unemployment taxes. Last year, it paid $3.4 billion in benefits and collected $2.2 billion in taxes. Its cushion gone, the state borrowed $1.75 billion from the federal government the past two years to pay benefits, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Voters in November approved a referendum preventing lawmakers from using unemployment funds for other purposes. But for employers, who are required by law to keep the trust fund solvent, it came too late.

They were in line for a payroll tax hike of $1 billion last year until Gov. Chris Christie and the Democratic Legislature agreed to enact a smaller tax increase that on average amounted to $130 per worker, borrow the balance from the federal government, tighten the rules so workers fired for misconduct would have a harder time collecting benefits and set up a task force to seek long-term solutions.

Christie in his proposal last Februrary to reform the unemployment system supported a $50-a-week cut in maximum weekly benefits. New Jersey last year had the fourth highest benefit — behind Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.

Christie eventually backed away from that proposal and compromised with the Democrats.

Still, some thought Christie had a point. Christine Nichlos, chief executive officer of People Science, a Shrewsbury-based recruiting firm, said some people — particularly those in two-income families — reject job offers in the hopes of getting better ones, because of the cushion of unemployment benefits.

An informal People Science poll found that nearly half of those seeking jobs would consider a less-than-ideal position if their benefits were running out.

“We could be enabling them to delay decisions that will put them on a different career path,” Nichlos said.

Others said it is unfair to measure the state’s benefits without taking into account its average wages, which are among the nation’s highest. New Jersey’s jobless benefits ranks 28th in terms of the percentage of lost wages they replace, according to Patrick J. O’Keefe, director of economic research for J.H. Cohn, an accounting firm.

“Times change and people change, but the integrity of the unemployment fund has to be there for people in tough times to see them through,” said William T. Mullen, president of the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council, a coalition of labor unions.

The report of the unemployment fund task force is expected to be released by the end of the month. Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor would review its recommendations before announcing his strategy.

Laurie Ehlbeck, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in New Jersey and a task force member, said the group didn’t support lowering benefits.

“The last thing we want to do is hurt people who are legitimately unemployed,” she said, noting that the state could have managed the high unemployment rate if it hadn’t diverted money from the fund. She declined to discuss other details about the final report.

Employers could face payroll tax hikes each year to restore the trust fund — unless the number of jobless workers dramatically declines. That’s one reason Sarno at the Employers Association and others are advocating a change to the unemployment system to include a more aggressive re-training program.

“Its purpose is to tide people over during periods of unemployment, and that’s a social good,” Sarno said. “But folks who are long-term unemployed, we’re talking 100 (weeks), their skills are rusty. There’s some evidence to suggest employers are hesitant to hire long-term unemployed, so re-training becomes critical. It’s not only an unemployment check, which is fine, but it’s also re-training for jobs that are in demand.”