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.”

By Lisa Fleisher/Statehouse Bureau

As reported on NJ.com

TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie Thursday will propose major changes to the state’s broken unemployment system, reducing benefits for workers and limiting tax increases on employers, legislative and administration officials said tonight.

Christie’s proposal, which will need to be passed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, is aimed at softening a tax hike business groups said was their top concern for the year, while also targeting benefits given to future unemployed workers.

Democratic lawmakers have said they would fight to protect benefits for workers, but they also said increasing taxes employers pay for workers could stunt job growth.

“I am going to have to support some element of what is being put on the table,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex), who was briefed on the proposal Thursday. But “to have unemployed people, quote, ‘share the burden’ of dealing with our fiscal (problem), it’s like adding insult to injury to devastated New Jerseyans.”

The proposal, which would take effect in July, would reduce tax increases on businesses, institute a one-week waiting period for people receiving benefits, reduce the maximum weekly benefits check by $50 and increase benefit restrictions on people fired for “misconduct,” said Oliver and two senior Christie administration officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak before the announcement.

With the state’s jobless rate hovering around 10 percent, the proposal would not affect employees already on unemployment.


Full Star-Ledger coverage of the N.J. budget


Christie’s proposal is a shift from a statement he made just before taking office in January. He had said he wanted to find a way to help employers, but the state would have to “pay the piper on this” and he would not ask for legislation to put off the tax increase.

Those taxes on employers pay most of the cost of providing state benefits to laid-off workers. But politicians in both parties for years used unemployment taxes for other purposes, such as paying for health care for the poor.

A constitutional amendment, which Christie supports, will go on the ballot in November asking voters to force the Legislature to stop raiding accounts such as the New Jersey Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

When New Jersey and the country plunged into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the state quickly ran out of money to pay benefits. That triggered a tax increase lawmakers have tried to soften.

“There’s no bigger issue for the economy, for future economic growth, for this state,” said Arthur Maurice, a vice president with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. “Unless it’s resolved, there will be greater unemployment and no hope of any jobs recovery in the state.”

Without the proposed changes, the average employer in July would see taxes go up 58 percent — or $390 a year — per employee, according to the administration. The changes would hold that increase, on average, to 17 percent this year, or $130 per employee and further limit the potential for increases through 2013.

New Jersey has borrowed $1.2 billion from the federal government in the past year, and Christie and lawmakers have asked congressional representatives to work to get the loan forgiven.

Under Christie’s changes, future laid-off workers would have to bear some of the pain. The maximum weekly state benefit would be scaled back from $600 to $550, and people would have to wait a week to get a check. That means people who take weeklong furloughs — or temporary, unpaid time off — would not be eligible for benefits for that first week.

Those provisions will likely face the biggest fight.

“It’s something that I would have a very hard time supporting,” said Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex). “I think it’s Draconian.”


Posted by: Mitchell Hirsch on Feb 17, 2011

As reported by Unemployedworkers.org

UPDATE: FEB. 17 – UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE SOLVENCY BILL INTRODUCED IN SENATE
Senator Richard Durbin (IL), with Senators Jack Reed (RI) and Sherrod Brown (OH), today introduced the Unemployment Insurance Solvency Act of 2011, which offers immediate tax relief to cash-strapped states and employers, preserves UI benefit levels, and creates strong incentives for states to restore their UI programs to solvency while also rewarding states that have managed their UI trust funds effectively.

In a statement, NELP Executive Director Christine Owens said, “Jobless workers, and we hope employers too, should be grateful for the leadership of Senator Richard Durbin and his colleagues Sherrod Brown and Jack Reed on the issue of unemployment insurance solvency.  Following the President’s FY 2012 budget, the introduction of the Unemployment Insurance Solvency Act sets the stage for a serious conversation on how to make sure that the safety net tens of millions of Americans have counted on during the tough times of the last few years will be financially secure into the future.”

The new bill is similar to the plan outlined by President Obama in his remarks last week, but adds further protections for benefits and additional opportunities and incentives for states to return to solvency in the long run. 

Original Post: Feb. 11

Unemployment insurance is just that — insurance — and it’s financed by premiums paid on workers’ paychecks and deposited into a trust fund.  However, the unemployment insurance (UI) trust funds in many states are not only insolvent, but now face heavy debt burdens due to their increased need for federal borrowing during this prolonged period of high unemployment.  Restoring them to financial health is essential to ensure that unemployment insurance benefits are there for workers when they’re needed, both today and in the future.  The Administration has outlined a significant framework to address the problem, which would provide needed debt and tax relief to states and businesses.

A new plan from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) would build on that framework, further strengthening the long-term solvency of state UI systems while avoiding benefit cuts and employer tax increases.  Workers need to pay attention to this issue.  The last time UI trust funds got hit this hard, in the 1980s, 44 states cut back benefits for workers.

Many states UI trust funds have been hit in recent years by a double-engine freight train.  First, for years many states have inadequately financed their UI funds, both by keeping their taxable wage base for UI too low relative to inflation-adjusted dollar values, and by taking a dangerous “pay-as-you-go” approach, which failed to build adequate reserves during periods of economic growth.  The graph below shows the substantial erosion in the inflation-adjusted value of the wage base that is subject to the UI taxes that fund state systems.  What does this mean?  It means that the employer of a dishwasher pays the same unemployment premium as the employer of a banker.  It does not take a degree in actuarial science to know that this is not going to work.

Value of UI Taxable Wage Base, Adjusted

And oh yeah, second — well, then came the Great Recession with millions of workers’ jobs being lost and the vastly increased need for unemployment benefits to help sustain unemployed job-seekers and their families.

Now, 30 states have exhausted their UI trust funds and are borrowing from the federal government.

The lead editorial in The New York Times yesterday, titled ‘Relief for States and Businesses’, explained the need for the Obama administration’s approach.  Here are some excerpts:

So many people now receive jobless benefits that 30 states have run out of their unemployment trust funds and are borrowing $42 billion from the federal government. Three of the hardest-hit states — Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina — have borrowed so much that they triggered automatic unemployment tax increases on employers, and the same thing is likely to happen to 20 more states this year.

….

On Tuesday, the Obama administration unveiled a smart proposal to delay those tax increases and provide some relief to both employers and state governments. Congressional Republicans reflexively objected to the idea, which could produce higher taxes in three years, but this plan provides relief that might stimulate hiring now when it is most needed.

….

Under the plan, which is subject to Congressional approval, there would be a two-year moratorium on the increased taxes that employers would otherwise have to pay to support the unemployment insurance system, which could save businesses as much as $7 billion. During those same two years, states would be forgiven from paying the $1.3 billion in interest they owe Washington on the money they have borrowed.

….

In 2014, when the economy will presumably have recovered somewhat, employers will have to make up for the moratorium by paying higher unemployment taxes to the states. Specifically, they will have to pay taxes on the first $15,000 of an employee’s income, instead of the current $7,000. But, even then, unemployment taxes will be at the same level, adjusted for inflation, as they were in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan raised them.

The administration is proposing to cut the federal unemployment tax rate in 2014 so that employers would pay the same amount to Washington as they do now. States, if they choose to do so, could collect more from each employer to repay the federal government and restock their own unemployment trust funds.

….

The full details of the plan’s costs and benefits will be available when President Obama submits his 2012 budget to Congress next week. When he does, both parties should take a close look at the numbers and seize the opportunity to keep this fundamental safety net solvent.

“It is a major step forward for the President’s FY 2012 budget to address the UI trust fund crisis,” said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project and a co-author of the new joint NELP-CBPP policy proposal.  “Our proposal rests on the same core principles — giving employers and states relief now while taking concrete steps to restore the long term solvency of the UI trust fund as the economy recovers.  The plan endorses two key aspects of what the Administration’s proposal reportedly includes — raising the taxable wage base up from the inadequate, outdated level of $7,000 and endorsing a two-year moratorium on federal UI tax increases.”

The NELP-CBPP plan, detailed in a new report, would enable states to restore the solvency of their UI trust funds, avoid significant tax increases on employers during a weak economy, and prevent damaging cuts in UI eligibility and benefits for jobless workers, without increasing the deficit.  The plan also suggests additional debt relief for states and positive incentives for employers, rewards states that have maintained sound financing packages, and builds on existing federal protections of state benefit levels.

In a statement, the groups provide a summary of the plan:

• The federal government would gradually raise the amount of a worker’s wages subject to the federal UI tax (i.e., the FUTA taxable wage base). This would automatically raise the floor for the taxable wage bases in the states which by law cannot be lower than the federal wage base, helping those states rebuild their trust funds. (The federal UI tax rate would fall, however, so that overall federal UI taxes did not go up.)

• The federal government would provide a moratorium, until 2013, on state interest payments on their UI loans.

• The federal government would also postpone, for two years, the FUTA tax increases required to recoup the loan principal in borrowing states.

• The federal government would offer immediate rewards and future incentives for states that currently have and continue to maintain adequate trust fund levels.

• The federal government would excuse a state from repaying part of its loan if the state (a) enters a flexible contractual agreement with the U.S. Labor Department to rebuild its trust fund to an appropriate level over a reasonable number of years, and (b) agrees to maintain UI eligibility, benefit levels, and an appropriate tax rate over the loan-reduction period.

This plan would produce the following benefits:

• Employers would not pay higher federal UI taxes until the beginning of 2014, saving them $5 billion to $7 billion while the economy remains weak and $10 billion to $18 billion over the next five years. Also, employers would pay no additional assessments to cover interest payments in 2011 or 2012, saving them $3.6 billion.

• In addition, partial loan forgiveness that comes from a state’s commitment to build adequate trust funds would save employers about $37 billion by the end of the decade. Counting the interest payments on this principal as well, employers could save as much as $50 billion.

• All or nearly all states would assume a path to permanent solvency.

• Employers in responsible states would receive concrete rewards and a more level playing field between the states.

• Adequate trust funds would stabilize UI tax rates over time, avoiding the roller-coaster tax rates common in many states — very low during healthy economic times, rising rapidly during recessions — that harm businesses and the economy.

• States would maintain current UI benefit and eligibility levels.

• The federal deficit would not rise as a result of these policies.

“States face a tremendously urgent crisis when it comes to their unemployment insurance trust funds,” said Michael Leachman, assistant director of the Center’s State Fiscal Project and co-author of the report. “If federal policymakers address this crisis using our plan, employers could save as much as $50 billion in taxes and states would maintain the critical benefits they provide to people who lose their jobs.”