There are more signs New Jersey continues to lag behind the rest of the nation as the economy struggles to come back to life. For the second week in a row, jobless claims increased in the Garden State.

The Department of Labor reports another 19,875 new claims filed last week. More than 2.1 million claims have been filed since Gov. Phil Murphy shut the state economy over a year ago.

After seeing new unemployment claims falling steadily since last December, the number of new claims hit a low of 9,840 March 6. They have been steadily rising since.

Jobless claims were also up nationally, showing continuing challenges in the job market. The U.S. Labor Department reported a total of 714,000 first-time claims. Like New Jersey, it was the second weekly increase after claims hit a pandemic low.

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One positive is a decline in continuing claims, or the measure of how many people are currently receiving benefits. That number dropped to 3.73 million for the week that ended March 27 but was still higher than many analysts had expected.

The nation also saw a drop in the number of self-employed, freelancers and gig workers filing claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In New Jersey, those claims have been rising.

Despite the many challenges that remain, especially among bar and restaurant workers and those in the travel and hospitality sectors, the nation added back nearly a million jobs last month. It dropped the unemployment rate to 6% but even after those gains, the labor market is still 8.4 million jobs leaner than before the pandemic began.

In New Jersey, the gains have been even less. State labor department figures show we recovered 10,700 jobs in February and 364,000 since last March but almost half of the jobs lost have not come back. New Jersey's unemployment rate is now 7.8% compared to the national average of 6%.

Hundreds of thousands of state residents have been receiving unemployment benefits for over a year. For most, the transition to a new benefits year has been seamless. New Jersey upgraded computer systems so they could automatically recertify the benefits, a process labor officials claim could have taken three months and interrupted benefits without this upgrade. The state has now paid out over $26 billion in unemployment benefits.

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