TRENTON – Just one jobs report remains until the 2021 gubernatorial election, and the data that’s available now is what will set the backdrop for the approaching debates and any campaign ads airing this fall.

Through August, the state had recovered 65% of the jobs lost in the first two months of the pandemic, including gains every month so far in 2021, but its unemployment rate is still 7.2%.

How do those numbers compare with other states? Here’s a summary.

Steady recovery

New Jersey is one of 11 states that have added jobs every month in 2021, through the first eight months of the year. The others are Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington.

Jobs in New Jersey have grown by 3% during 2021, which ranks 18th among the states.

That is part of why Rowan University political scientist Ben Dworkin said Gov. Phil Murphy isn’t being hammered by the public despite an economy still far from fully recovered from the job losses associated with the shutdowns and restrictions imposed at the early height of the pandemic.

“The fact is, when you talk about job numbers and the unemployment rate, the question for folks is: How is it compared to yesterday? Do I have a better chance of keeping my job or finding a job today?” Dworkin said.

“For the average person in New Jersey, there are jobs available. It’s really a question of: Do you want to put yourself out there?” he said. “This is not about the ability to find a job but do you feel safe in finding a job? COVID overshadows all of these job numbers because so many people are concerned about whether they go back to work.”

Almost a quarter-million shy

During the first two months of the pandemic, March and April 2020, the number of jobs in New Jersey declined by 17%, more than 717,000 jobs.

Only nine states took a bigger hit percentagewise over those two months: Michigan, Hawaii, Nevada, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Over the last 16 months, from April 2020 to August 2021, New Jersey has regained 65% of the jobs lost during those first two months of COVID. That’s a slower recovery than in 37 states but faster than in 12 states and Washington, D.C.

New Jersey has added 468,600 jobs, but that still leaves the state 248,600 shy of its pre-pandemic peak. Only three states have a higher unemployment rate than New Jersey’s 7.2%: Nevada, New York and California. The national average is 5.2%.

“Of course there’s political exposure for Phil Murphy when the unemployment rate is that high,” Dworkin said. “Everybody in New Jersey wants a lower unemployment rate. But I’m not sure how much it’s actually going to have an effect on the outcome of the election right now.”

Placement among peers

Utah and Idaho have more jobs now than they did in February 2020, just before the pandemic began. Idaho had fully recovered by December 2020, Utah by this past February.

Washington, D.C., has recovered just 35% of its lost jobs, worst on the list. Wyoming has the slowest recovery among the states, gaining back 38%, despite having the nation’s second-smallest loss in the first place.

The other states that have recovered a smaller share of their lost jobs than New Jersey are Hawaii, Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Illinois, Oklahoma, California, Virginia and Iowa.

Trends within New Jersey

Compared with February 2020, jobs in New Jersey are down 6% in the private sector and 5% in the public sector. The biggest declines have been in leisure and hospitality, down 20%; real estate and rental and leasing, down 15%; wholesale trade, down 9%; construction, down 8%; and health care and social assistance, down 7%.

The number of leisure and hospitality jobs in New Jersey, adjusted for seasonal differences, was 400,000 just before the pandemic – then bottomed out at 180,900 in June 2020, when the initial lockdowns from the early months began to ease and restaurants were able to reopen at limited capacities.

As of August, there were 319,200 jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry. The declines included a 27% drop in jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation, from 71,300 to 52,300, and a 19% drop in jobs at hotels and restaurants, from 328,700 to 266,900.

A few areas have added jobs since February 2020, such as trade and transportation, up 4%; finance and insurance, up 2%; and manufacturing of nondurable goods and professional, scientific and technical services, both up 1%.

The Murphy years

Compared with January 2018, the month that Murphy took office, the total number of jobs in New Jersey is down 3.7%. Both the private and public sectors are faring about the same in that period, with government jobs contracting slightly more.

Thirty-six states have had better job performance since January 2018, including 15 where the number of jobs has grown. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have registered bigger percentage job losses than New Jersey.

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Between the start of Murphy’s term in January 2018 and the eve of the pandemic in February 2020, job growth in New Jersey had registered 2.3%. That ranked better than 28 states and Washington, D.C., but trailed 21 states.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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