By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
In the rush to answer this crisis, Congress passed a stimulus bill fattening unemployment benefits so generously that millions of people will earn more if they get fired or furloughed.
That creates an opportunity. By putting 100,000 public workers on furlough as soon as possible, New Jersey could increase their take-home pay during this crisis, easing their burden and juicing the state economy.
There is more. The stimulus bill also includes generous new subsidies for employers to share jobs during this slowdown, rather than rely on layoffs. The hope is to spread the pain, for 10 people to lose half their hours by furlough, rather than for 5 people to lose their jobs entirely.
New Jersey could capture that subsidy, too. Senate President Steve Sweeney, who is pushing this idea, estimates that the job-share subsidy could be worth $750 million — split between state government, local governments, and school districts.
That may be optimistic, but this is clearly a promising course that the state should charge hard at right away. This is money on the table, folks. Failing to claim it would be political malpractice, the craziest move since Gov. Chris Christie turned down $3 billion in federal aid for the Hudson River tunnel project.
In fact, while no state has done this yet, the private sector saw this opportunity a few weeks ago and has been taking full advantage — putting workers on part-time furlough and claiming those job-share subsidies, just as Sweeney wants to do in the public sector.
“It’s a great idea, and more widespread already than people think,” says Tom Bracken, head of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “You have people who are not as busy as they were, so you can have them work a few days a week on furlough. They get the unemployment and are kept whole. And it saves employers money. It’s a win-win.”
The state Senate will hold hearings on the plan this week, remotely. Gov. Phil Murphy says he’s open to the idea, but his advisors are skeptical that it would save as much as Sweeney hopes, and Sweeney is frustrated that weeks have passed since he proposed the idea and he’s still waiting for an answer.
“It gives the state of New Jersey a chance to get $750 million more, and it doesn’t hurt one person,” Sweeney says. “Why wouldn’t we do it?”
Hetty Rosenstein, head of the Communications Workers of America, says that unions might support Sweeney’s plan on a smaller scale. “It is one tool, but it won’t save $750 million,” she says.
Public workers, she says, are busy in this crisis — not just police and cops but teachers, nurses, and office workers processing unemployment claims. “People at the Department of Labor are working from home 12 hours a day and six days a week,” she said. “I don’t reject anything, but it’s going to apply to a fairly small number of people in the grand scheme.”
Perhaps. But no one has a good handle on that number yet. And even if the savings are one-third as large as Sweeney predicts, that comes to $250 million, in addition to the pay hikes for furloughed workers. In the world of public policy, this is a rare opportunity.
Remember, New Jersey gets a very raw deal from the federal government on the whole, sending $1 to Washington and getting 90 cents back. Last week Sen. Mitch McConnell suggested that states like New Jersey should declare bankruptcy rather than ask for more federal help during this crisis. His state, Kentucky, gets $2.41 back for every $1 it sends to Washington.
Want to get some revenge on Mitch? Let’s grab this money. And let’s move fast.