Coronavirus update: N.J. unemployment claims soar 2,000%

Mar 26, 2020

More than 150,000 New Jerseyans applied for unemployment benefits last week, a staggering 2,000% increase over the same week last year, the state Department of Labor said Thursday.

The numbers on a national level are equally sobering: a record 3.3 million Americans filed for the benefits in a single week — nearly five times the initial claims recorded during the peak of the Great Recession in 2009, according to newly released federal data.

A drive-thru coronavirus testing site in New Jersey. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office)

The statistics are among the first official indicators of the pain workers are feeling as broad swaths of the country shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The hotel industry alone has lost as many as 1 million jobs this month, NPR reported, while everything from the transportation and entertainment sectors to restaurants and tourism have grinded nearly to a halt.

Also remarkable in New Jersey is how quickly the pain set in. In the week before last, only 9,467 people filed for unemployment benefits in the state. But when confirmed cases started to grow exponentially, and Gov. Phil Murphy imposed the first round of restrictions on businesses and individual movement, claims skyrocketed.

On March 15 — the same day Murphy limited operating hours for retail businesses and discouraged travel after 8 p.m. — so many people tried to file claims that the state website set up for that purpose crashed. The site is now back up and running.

At that time, two people in the state had died from COVID-19. As of Thursday, 81 people had passed away and the total number of confirmed cases in the state had soared to 6,876. The 2,492 new cases announced Thursday were by far the state’s largest one-day increase.

State Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said unemployment claims for the week ending March 21 are the “highest total of single-week claims in memory.”

In comparison, claims in New Jersey peaked around 46,000 after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and 25,000 at the low point of the last recession.

On the plus side, Asaro-Angelo noted, the state’s unemployment fund is relatively robust, and applicants do not have a “waiting week” before benefits are paid once they are approved.

Also, the state has temporarily suspended the work search requirement for laid off workers, he said, and an extension of benefits beyond the currently allowable 26 weeks is “all but certain.”

The state has also set up a hiring portal for job-seekers and employers, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority on Thursday announced a suite of programs worth $75 million to aid businesses.

In the meantime, the U.S. Senate has approved a $2 trillion economic relief package that broadly expands unemployment benefits, extending them to gig workers and freelancers. A House vote is expected Friday.

One provision would give jobless workers an extra $600 a week on top of their state benefits for four months.

Trump declares ‘major disaster’ in N.J.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday approved a major disaster declaration for New Jersey that will provide additional federal assistance to help respond to the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

“With our major disaster declaration approved, New Jersey will now have access to greater essential federal support to help our residents through this emergency,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement announcing the declaration on Thursday morning.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are already working in New Jersey to set up drive-through testing sites and rapidly expand hospital capacity.

The $2 trillion economic relief package currently working its way through Congress would also provide direct cash assistance to states and residents.

A major disaster declaration can free up additional funds for “emergency protective measures” taken by states, as well as crisis counseling for individuals. Other states to receive the declaration include New York, California, Washington, Iowa, Louisiana, Texas and Florida.

Entire N.J. senior home presumed positive

All residents in a Middlesex County nursing home are presumed to be infected with COVID-19 and have been transferred to another location, NBC New York reported Wednesday.

Twenty-four residents and five staff members at St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge tested positive, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Thursday, while the remaining roughly 55 residents are presumed to be positive. Three residents have died, she said.

The rapid spread of the virus there left the Catholic nuns who operate it understaffed and overwhelmed.

Persichilli said earlier this week that the nursing home had been under observation since Friday.

“When they called us, I can tell you it was an extremely stressful situation,” Persichilli said, adding that she remains particularly concerned about all residents of long-term care facilities in the state.

As of Thursday, at least 43 of roughly 375 such facilities had recorded at least one positive case of COVID-19.

Roughly one quarter of all related deaths — 19 of the state’s 81 fatalities as of Thursday — were of people housed or working there, Persichilli said.

More drive-thru testing sites open across the state

With just two state-run drive-through coronavirus testing sites operating in New Jersey — at Bergen Community College and PNC Bank Arts Center in Monmouth County — more county and local governments are beginning to open their own facilities.

Trenton on Thursday opened a drive-through site available only to the city’s first responders: firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel. Officials said the site, located at the Trenton Police Department’s impound lot, would soon expand to be open to other first responders from Mercer County.

Burlington County was set to open a temporary drive-through screening site at the Emergency Services Training Center in Westampton on Thursday afternoon. Symptomatic residents were asked to call (609) 726-7097 ahead of time to make an appointment. Future screening at the site will depend on the availability of test kits, officials said.

Similar testing sites have also cropped up or are scheduled to begin testing residents in Essex, Hudson, Union, Passaic and Ocean counties. Residents are encouraged to check with their county governments for further details and the site’s testing criteria.

On Thursday, Murphy said the two state sites would accept symptomatic health care workers and first responders only on Saturday, March 28.

“The general public will not be able to access these sites on this Saturday,” he said. PNC Bank Arts Center will serve that population only on each subsequent Saturday as well, Murphy said, while both sites move to a new weekly schedule starting next week, but have not released those details yet.

Schools closed through April 17 at least

Also Thursday, Murphy put the kibosh on any notion that the state’s schools would open before April 17.

He said some districts had started advising families when they would allow students to return to classrooms.

“Let me be perfectly clear on this: That decision rests with yours truly,” he said. “We will not be prepared to revisit the closure until at least April 17 at the very earliest.”

PATCO to close four stations

Starting Saturday, PATCO will close four stations for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. They are Ashland, Westmont, City Hall and 12/13th & Locust St.

The transit system will also run trains less frequently.

More information is available on PATCO’s website.