TRENTON, NJ — The head of the state's Department of Labor said that the measures enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus have caused unemployment numbers to soar to record-breaking levels.

Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said on May 21 that the New Jersey's unemployment rate has hit 15.3 percent — the highest level since the state first started recording the monthly number in 1976.

Some 1.1 million New Jerseyans are collecting jobless benefits from when the pandemic first hit the state in mid-March, and Asaro-Angelo said the state has since paid out $3.4 billion in claims.

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Nationally, the unemployment rate is 14.7 percent and 20.5 million people lost their jobs in April, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

New Jersey lost 757,700 jobs in April, including huge dropoffs in areas such as leisure and hospitality (237,000 jobs lost), transportation (158,000), education and health services (113,000) and professional and business services (90,000).

Asaro-Angelo said that the economic tailspin “was not unexpected.”

“As our state was succeeding in flattening one curve, it was natural to see a rise in another,” he said at Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily COVID-19 press briefing.

To make matters worse, Asaro-Angelo said that thousands of New Jerseyans may have unwittingly halted their unemployment benefits.

“Last week, 33,000 customers responded to one or more of the certification questions in a way that makes their claim ineligible for benefits under federal law,” he said. “One wrong click is all it takes to see a pause to these much-need benefits.”

He urged claimants to review the information at before certifying.

The grim jobless figures come as Murphy has begun to ease social distancing orders and start the process of opening up the state for business.

In the past week or so, everything from drive-thru zoos to drive-in movies have been given the go-ahead to reopen. The biggest move came May 14 when Murphy announced that New Jersey will allow nonessential retail business to reopen for curbside pickup beginning on May 22.

The reopening of New Jersey apparently isn’t coming quickly enough for some Republican lawmakers who are suing to strike down Murphy’s restrictions on businesses.

A three-count, 13-page complaint filed in Cape May County Superior Court on May 21 accuses Murphy of violating the due process of employers and employees by declaring some nonessential — and others essential — during the state shutdown. The suit called the executive orders to close gyms, malls, casinos, theaters and other business “unconstitutional.”

When a reporter asked Murphy about the suit, the governor replied, “They sued me? As you can tell, I've spent a lot of time focused on that suit.”

While unemployment numbers go up, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations continues to fall. State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli reported Thursday 1,304 new positive cases, bringing the state total to 151,472.

There were 143 new hospitalizations and 286 residents were discharged. Persichilli reported 98 new deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 10,843.

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