TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Despite an estimated job gain of 9,900, New Jersey's unemployment rate shot up in June to 9.6 percent, its highest level in more than three years, the state Labor Department reported Thursday, setting off a political back-and-forth between Democrats and the Christie administration over the Republican governor's touted "Jersey Comeback."
The New Jersey Labor Department said preliminary figures now put the combined May and June job gains at nearly 25,000, the largest two-month increase in more than 12 years, helped by greater-than-expected hiring for seasonal work.
But the jobless rate jumped nearly a half-percentage point during the period, up from 9.2 percent in May. The national rate in June was 8.2 percent.
The state Treasury Department's chief economist, Charles Steindel, said the increase was due in part to an influx of new entrants and re-entrants to the state labor market. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively looking for a job.
The labor participation rate in New Jersey stands at 66.1 percent, compared with a national rate of 63.8 percent, state officials said.
"If the job count keeps rising at this pace, unemployment will inevitably come down," Steindel said.
The last time the state's jobless rate was 9.6 percent was April 2009, state data showed.
New Jersey was not an anomaly; other states in the region reported similar bumps in joblessness. New York state said its unemployment rate rose from 8.6 percent to 8.9 percent in June in spite of adding more than 15,000 jobs as more people entered the job market. Connecticut's rate jumped from 7.8 percent to 8.1 percent.
Year-over-year in New Jersey, total employment rose by 65,000 jobs, with gains in nine of the last 10 months, the latest figures showed.
The Democratic chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, Vincent Prieto, said the latest data show much work remains to be done to strengthen the state's economy and that the governor's regular touting of the "Jersey Comeback" is premature.
"Repeating something ad nauseam doesn't make it a reality," he said.
Prieto said the latest jobs report was particularly troubling because the biggest sector gain in June (6,100) was in leisure and hospitality, which the Labor Department noted got a boost from greater-than-expected seasonal hiring, or temporary jobs.
Democrats are locked in a public relations battle with Gov. Chris Christie over whether the state can afford to enact a tax cut.
The governor's office said the big-picture view of the numbers released Thursday is one of a state on a continued path of job creation and growth. New Jersey has now added as many jobs in the first six months of the year as it did in all of 2011, which was already the single best year of private sector job growth for the state since 2000, the administration said.
With the latest report showing jobs still being added, the administration said it will continue its push the Legislature to pass legislation providing New Jerseyans a tax cut.
The Democrat-controlled Legislature wants to hold off until January to make sure the state is bringing in adequate revenue before agreeing to tax relief; it claims the governor's projections for state revenue growth are overly optimistic.