‘What am I going to do?’: When a signing bonus can’t help the jobless

By: - September 30, 2021 7:05 am

New Jersey hopes subsidized signing bonuses will help boost the slow economic recovery. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Nicole Squitieri needs the $500 signing bonus New Jersey is using to lure the unemployed back to work. She said she has no choice but to turn it down.

Squitieri is a mom with three kids — two of them have already had to stay home from school after coming into close contact with a positive COVID-19 case — and married to a man who works overnights. Her father-in-law just had a stroke, requiring her to provide extra caregiving.

When her unemployment payments ran out, she figured she’d make ends meet through DoorDash while her kids were in school.

“But every time I turn around, there’s another close contact with somebody and now my child has to stay home until October 12,” she said. “Now, I’m out of work even longer, and how am I supposed to survive?”

Gov. Phil Murphy announced the $500 bonus idea Monday, a bid to jumpstart the state’s economy. The state will pay for the bonus checks and additional subsidies for small businesses.

Economists and business groups who say the economy needs help rebounding applauded the move. And it is expected to attract some workers who weren’t rushing back to employment, like people who were hesitant to start a new job or still relying on money they saved from pandemic-era unemployment programs.

But there’s a swath of people who stand no chance to benefit from the program: single parents, caregivers, and people who weren’t returning to jobs because of health concerns. People like Jamie Mccroy, a Millville mother of five.

“My hands are tied. I can’t go apply for a job, get hired, and then two days in, say, ‘I have to go home and quarantine because my kids were exposed.’ I’m going to get fired,” Mccroy said. “I want to go back to work. I’m tired of being home. But what am I going to do?”

Luis Portes, an economics professor at Montclair State University, said the state’s new signing bonus program — dubbed “Return and Earn” — won’t work for people in these circumstances, but the policy will help boost an economy that’s still crawling to recovery.

“Our unemployment rate is still above where it used to be. I don’t think this solution is for everyone, but it’s another way to help out,” he said. “We’re hoping the worst is behind us.”

How it can help the economy

Although $500 doesn’t go far in New Jersey, Portes said the program will help tackle issues on both sides of the labor market.

He noted companies who receive the subsidies could offer new perks they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and an extra bonus on your first check is always welcome.

“Any help the labor market can get is beneficial to getting back to the levels of employment we had before,” he said. “A new wave of individuals might decide to jump on board.”

Business leaders also commended New Jersey for the back-to-work bonuses.

I want to go back to work and bring in an income, and it's hard because some people say 'they're lazy' or 'they don't want to go back to work.' But we're trying to keep a roof over our kids' heads, keep them fed, and we can't because there's no help for us.

– Nicole Squitieri

The signing bonus is available to new hires earning at least $15 an hour, while businesses with fewer than 100 employees can receive up to $10,000 in subsidies, capped at $40,000. The companies must provide job training that awards skill badges or certificates.

New Jersey’s recovered about half the jobs lost at the height of pandemic restrictions, but still has among the highest unemployment rates in the nation at 7.2%.

Program out of reach for struggling residents

Mccroy worked throughout most of the pandemic, leaving her job at Domino’s Pizza in May because the store wasn’t taking safety precautions. She must return to work to pay bills, she said, since she couldn’t save any money from her $173 weekly unemployment checks.

“It sucks for moms and dads trying to figure this out with the whole school situation. I get that they can’t go to school if they’re sick, but what am I going to do? What can I do to carry my weight and pay my bills?” she said.

When Squitieri lost her retail job, unemployment checks and visits to food banks kept her family afloat. But with no more financial assistance available, bills are piling up. Her family is $800 behind on their electric bill, Squitieri said, and they continue visiting local pantries. Her husband’s income is just enough to keep paying for their house.

“It’s a never-ending battle. I want to go back to work and bring in an income, and it’s hard because some people say ‘they’re lazy’ or ‘they don’t want to go back to work.’ But we’re trying to keep a roof over our kids’ heads, keep them fed, and we can’t because there’s no help for us,” said Squitieri, who lives in Howell.

She suggested Murphy create an unemployment program for parents who haven’t returned to work because they have kids at home. Mccroy, who said she relies on $750 she receives through the child tax credit to pay her major bills, supports this idea.

“Because as soon as your child gets a runny nose and sent home from school, you can’t work,” she said.

Mccroy, 36,  said she’s considering voting for the first time ever because she disagrees with policies Murphy passed during the pandemic, including the $500 signing bonus.

“We all know we have to work, so there shouldn’t need to be a prize to go back to work, but I want to go back to work too and I can’t right now,” she said. “What am I going to get?”


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.