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June 6, 2022

Bordonaro: Economy, jobs should be top focus on gubernatorial campaign trail this summer

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Gov. Ned Lamont is the Democrat’s candidate for governor this fall.
Photo Credit Bob Stefanowski is the Republican challenger to Lamont.

With Memorial Day marking the unofficial start of summer, this is usually the time of year when state politics takes a warm-weather break.

Greg Bordonaro

Not in 2022. With a major gubernatorial election looming this fall, expect to see Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and his Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski on the campaign trail in the months ahead, wooing voters at clam bakes, fairs and other summer gatherings.

The’ll stump on many issues but the main focus should be on jobs and the economy, particularly for Stefanowski if he wants any shot at dethroning his Democratic opponent.

Connecticut residents affirmed this in a May 25 Quinnipiac Poll, which found 35% of voters think the economy is the most important issue in deciding who to vote for in the governor’s race. Meantime, 57% of voters are bearish about the state economy, saying it’s either not so good (34%) or poor (23%).

They have legitimate reasons to be concerned as the state’s economy remains in a precarious position with inflation, the labor shortage, struggling stock market and threat of a recession looming large.

Despite signing into law a $600 million tax cut last month, Lamont missed an opportunity to garner warm and fuzzy feelings from the business community, which wanted more business-related tax cuts, particularly help paying down a greater portion of the state’s unemployment insurance fund debt.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association and numerous other groups also lamented Lamont signing into law the captive audience bill, which attempts to muzzle employers when it comes to discussing worker labor issues, including unionization efforts.

On the bright side, businesses applauded the $3.5 billion supplemental payment lawmakers agreed to make against the state’s massive pension debt, which will lead to long-term cost savings.

As we approach the midway point of the year, and both gubernatorial candidates try to put their own spin on Connecticut’s economic performance, here’s a numbers-based analysis of how things are going in the labor market.

The good news is the state has added jobs in each of the last 13 months, with total nonfarm employment reaching 1.647 million at the end of April. The unemployment rate remains low at 4.4%, but still above the 3.6% national average.

Despite the job gains, however, Connecticut’s labor market is struggling. The state has still only recovered 82.1% (237,500) of the 289,400 nonfarm positions lost in the March and April 2020 COVID trough.

Worse yet, entering the pandemic, Connecticut had still not recovered all the jobs it lost during the Great Recession. Connecticut has 73,800 fewer jobs today than it did in March 2008 — right before the Great Recession took hold in the state.

Those numbers could be much improved if it wasn’t for the pesky, and somewhat puzzling labor shortage.

At the end of March, Connecticut employers reported 110,000 open positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a number that was largely unchanged from the previous month.

If just 67% of those open jobs were filled, Connecticut’s labor market would return to pre-Great Recession levels.

There’s been much written about the causes of the labor shortage, which is a national issue.

Personally, I think pandemic-induced Baby Boomer retirements have played a big role, and that’s a cohort that won’t be returning to the workforce, meaning the issue could linger. Lack of child care has also hurt the market.

There is no silver bullet to solving the labor shortage, although lawmakers did approve significant new spending last session on workforce development programs and bolstering the child-care industry.

We’ll see how much of an impact those investments have, but it seems like Connecticut is missing an opportunity to expand its labor pool.

If a recession hits, it’s likely some of those open jobs disappear.

In addition, the labor shortage has forced many companies across various industries to invest more in technology to make up for the lack of available human help. That too could have a longer-term impact on the labor market.

Lamont and Stefanowski should make this a top issue on the campaign trail. The governor should explain how his policies are helping fill available jobs and attracting high-paying new ones. Stefanowski should offer his own blueprint to jump-start growth.

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