N.J. has hiring crisis: Here are some ways to address it

The headlines have been nothing short of glaring.

A family-owned delicatessen with 10 years under its belt announces it is closing because it can no longer find staff.

Michele Siekerka. (File photo)

Restaurant owners needing to offer finders fees and other incentives to current workers in order to bring in reliable future workers.

Small businesses in all industries, from child care and day camps to manufacturing and seasonal tourism, placing ads and help wanted signs everywhere, and getting few to zero responses.

Welcome to New Jersey’s great hiring challenge — the result of a perfect storm, which includes:

  • Continued unemployment and stimulus payments causing many people to pass on work opportunities to instead collect an unemployment check;
  • A lack of child care availability, with schools still not fully open in many areas and child care center license restrictions limiting capacity;
  • Last year’s ban on J1 Visa applicants for summer work continuing to impact this year’s Shore-area employers.

Gov. Phil Murphy appears to be dismissing this as a “passing reality,” even though the enhanced Unemployment Insurance payments come to an end in September — after the tourism season ends. And, because he will not enforce the “actively looking for work” requirements, this crisis may actually get worse before it gets better.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association believes New Jersey workers who legitimately need UI benefits should get them. But that also should not stop them from looking for work or enrolling in training, education and other workforce development opportunities.

As such, we recently submitted recommendations to the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development, and we were appreciative of Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo acknowledging those concerns during recent budget hearings. But we need action.

For starters, NJDOLWD should take the opportunity to amplify its communications during the benefit distribution process and through career one-stop services that existing beneficiaries are legally required to seek employment and must accept a suitable job offer.

It also should articulate this important caveat for seasonal workers: Those who do not work at least 20 weeks in the season will fail to be eligible for UI in the fall.

NJDOLWD should create an online portal for employers to report refusals to work by prospective employees. The fact is, refusing work makes individuals ineligible for UI benefits, but the current reporting process is antiquated and slow.

It was very disappointing to hear the governor brush off this idea, when creating a readily accessible portal would streamline this process for employers, push individuals back into safe and steady employment, and protect the health of the UI system for those who need it the most.

At NJBIA, we also have advanced recommendations for financial assistance, which could take the form of a tax credit or grant with the goal of incentivizing employees to take up these open opportunities.

We have heard of some businesses raising their hourly pay. This is great if they can manage it. But, let’s remember, businesses will pay what they can afford. After a year of shutdowns and restrictions, many of these employers are still hanging on by a thread. Paying more, for many, could mean dipping into their own personal savings.

Further, we need to get our one-stop career service centers open to the public. These reemployment and training centers are at the heart of effectively connecting employers and employees versus an oversubscribed online or call-in system.

New Jersey has distributed $27.4 billion to workers since the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020. Let’s also remember that states voluntarily enter into the federal UI program, which created the opportunity to offer the additional $300 enhanced payment.

Last week, Montana announced it would opt out of the program — and provide a one-time $1,200 check for those who reenter the workforce — in order to motivate people to return to work.

We must reevaluate the UI process now if we have any hope of seeing our businesses ramp up to a full reopening and also to appreciate a successful tourism season; both of which drive significant tax dollars back to our state. Further, we must immediately lift any child care center license restrictions, allowing these centers to return to 100% capacity and, thus, enabling our working parents to return to work. Absent this, we cannot drive a sustained economic recovery for our great state.

Michele Siekerka is the CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.