This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus was sweeping through New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy essentially closed the state for two months, and it wasn’t until June that he lifted a stay-at-home order that began to bring people back into the world.
The result was record unemployment. In early April 2020, more than 200,000 filed initial claims in one week. The total unemployed peaked a month later, when more than 715,000 people were out of work.
While the closures have long ended, the unemployment problem has not. The latest comparative data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows New Jersey with a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 5.1%, the 11th highest in the nation, as of last December, the most recent data available.
That’s better than it was for much of last year, when the unemployment rate was more than 7%. The state has recovered about 561,000 jobs, or 78% of those lost in March and April 2020.
Between March 2020 and January 2022, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development distributed almost $40 billion in COVID-19-related benefits to 1.6 million workers.
Still, there are reports of workers continuing to have problems reaching unemployment offices — which have largely remained shuttered for most of the last two years — and getting benefits.
The labor department states that 90% of people are using the online benefits system, and that a call center it opened in June 2020 has fielded some 3.5 million calls with an average wait time of three to five minutes.
The department is finally reopening some offices for limited, in-person assistance and by appointment only.