NJ jobless rate inches down to 9.8 percent

TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey's unemployment rate ticked down a notch to 9.8 percent in September, even as the state shed 1,200 jobs for the month.

The state Labor Department reported Thursday that the jobless rate shrank by one-tenth of 1 percent, but remained above 9 percent for the 40th consecutive month.

The unemployment rate, which is preliminary, measures the number of residents who are out of work but able to work and actively looking for employment.

It stands a full 2 percentage points above the national rate, which came in at 7.8 percent for September, and continues to run at a 35-year high even with the dip.

The state's persistently high unemployment and lagging tax collections through the first three months of the fiscal year raise questions about the strength of the economic comeback touted by Gov. Chris Christie.

The Christie administration focused on the positives Thursday, pointing to the private-sector job growth recorded last month and the fact that the percentage of people seeking work is higher in New Jersey than nationally, which drives up the unemployment rate.

The state added 1,100 private-sector jobs for the month, but the gain was offset by the loss of 2,300 public-sector positions.

"This report reaffirms our forecast that New Jersey is in a persistent, moderate recovery," said Mekael Teshome, an economist with PNC Bank in Pittsburgh. "Payrolls are rising. The labor force is growing. Things are moving in the right direction, but they're moving slowly."

In a press release issued 13 minutes after the jobs report was made public, the administration pointed to the 84,900 private-sector jobs added since February 2010, the first full month Christie was in office.

In another sign of the weakness of the recovery, however, August's reported gain of 5,300 new jobs was revised downward Thursday to a monthly gain of just 2,000 jobs.

Democrats again used the monthly job report to attack the Christie administration, accusing the governor of lacking a comprehensive plan to create jobs and suggesting he's spending too much time out-of-state campaigning for Republicans facing election in three weeks.

"The governor will spend this evening in Pennsylvania, at Republican fundraisers where a dinner costs hundreds of dollars per plate," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo. "Perhaps he should spend it at a local food pantry instead, listening to the people who still can't find work."

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, the Assembly Budget Committee chair, offered a similar critique.

"I'm pleased that the numbers have moved downward this month rather than upward, but clearly there is still a lot of work left to be done in New Jersey," said Prieto. "We are still trending a full 2 points higher than the national average and just the other day, the governor's own Treasury officials warned investors that the state's revenue collections continue to lag far behind their predictions."

The administration advised Wall Street investors on Monday that rising costs and lower-than-expected tax collections could force the administration to make mid-year cuts to the state's $31.7 billion budget.

The industry that fared the poorest in September was construction, which lost 4,200 jobs. The professional, business, finance and hospitality sectors all lost jobs last month, while gains were reported in education and health services, other services and manufacturing.

Teshome, the PNC economist, said the weak construction market can be partly explained by the fact that New Jersey's foreclosure process is among the lengthiest in the country. The glut of foreclosed homes on the market, he said, discourages new housing starts.

For the month of August, New Jersey had the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country behind only California, Nevada and Rhode Island. Not all states have reported their September jobs numbers yet.