TRENTON — Coronavirus infections aren’t the only thing making an unwelcome comeback in New Jersey. First-time unemployment claims are also at their highest level in two months, up 38% over the last two weeks.

State Department of Labor and Workforce Development data issued Thursday shows 27,168 initial claims were filed in the week ending Sept. 26 – up around 2,500 from a week earlier, which itself was up around 5,000 from the week before that.

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Charles Steindel, a faculty member at Ramapo College and former state economist, said the weekly numbers aren’t of concern and that it’s better to focus on trends such as the total number of people receiving benefits.

“Weekly movements in unemployment claims can be very jumpy, especially when you think about this time of year, when summer resorts and beach businesses close down. A lot of temporary workers are there, and a lot of them are going to be filing for unemployment insurance claims,” Steindel said.

“That said, of course there are some forces that are going to be pushing up claims,” he said. “We know, to give an obvious example, Lord & Taylor and Century 21 are closing up shop. They have considerable operations in New Jersey. Those workers have probably been filing for unemployment insurance.”

In WARN notices filed with the state, Century 21 said layoffs would affect more than 960 employees in New Jersey.

In a sign the state’s economy is taking one step back for every step forward, the number of first-time claims in the last week of September was comparable to the 20,176 the last week of August – as well as the 28,063 the last week of July, the 27,965 the last week of June and the 26,572 the last week of May.

“What I prefer to look at, actually, is the number of people actually collecting unemployment insurance, which has actually fallen pretty substantially the last few weeks,” Steindel said. “The number of people collecting claims has fallen about 100,000 since the end of July, start of August. That’s a pretty substantial cut.”

In the week ending Aug. 1, there were 467,370 people receiving regular unemployment benefits and nearly 960,000 people in all collecting benefits, including the extended benefits and specific programs created by the federal government in response to the pandemic.

For the week ending Sept. 19, the most recent in which full data is available, that had fallen to 353,590 receiving regular benefits and around 839,000 across all programs. The latter number was about 12,000 higher than a week earlier – but way below the peak of 1.1 million in late May and early June.

The early number of continued claims for regular benefits in the week ending Sept. 19 was 321,153, down nearly 32,500 and down from a peak of over 715,000 in early May.

“The pandemic has so distorted the monthly numbers that you get to the point, even though the number looks quite alarming, given the context of what’s been going on this year, I don’t find it especially alarming,” Steindel said.

The state labor department said the increase in claims the last two weeks is driven mostly by people seeking Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a temporary federal benefits for gig workers and independent contractors not eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

The state has paid out $15.9 billion in jobless benefits since the pandemic began in March, of which $5.1 billion came from the state’s unemployment fund and the rest is federal aid.

As of Tuesday, New Jersey had borrowed nearly $304 million from the federal government to pay benefits because its UI fund is depleted. Eighteen states and the Virgin Islands had taken out a combined $33.75 billion in loans so far.

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Going forward, restaurants limited to 25% capacity could pull back on operations as the weather gets cooler and outdoor dining becomes more challenging, though Gov. Phil Murphy could raise the capacity. Steindel said there will also probably be seasonal hiring at retailers ahead of Christmas shopping season.

Steindel said airlines have been “hammered” and is something to worry about. United Airlines, which has a major hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, said it plans to furlough 13,000 employees as $25 billion in federal aid for payroll support provided through the CARES Act ran out on Wednesday.

“That, of course, is disturbing, the airline furloughs and the like. Just as important to New Jersey would be things like the maintenance staff,” Steindel said. “But package deliveries are way up. Those are big operations in Newark. All the UPS and FedEx shipments go in by air, and they’ve probably been quite busy. And in fact, shipments and truck traffic and the like has been quite strong.”

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