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Democrats decry DeCroce

Criticized for saying unemployment checks discourage work, he hit opponents' extra jobs.

TRENTON - Democratic leaders who demanded that the Assembly's top Republican apologize after saying the state's jobless workers were content to collect unemployment may have gotten more than they asked for Wednesday.

Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce said his comments were directed at people gaming the system, not those who have been hard-hit by the recession and are looking for work.

He then called out the Democratic leaders - Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver - for working public jobs besides being part-time legislators. Sweeney works part-time as a Gloucester County freeholder, and Oliver is employed full time by Essex County.

Sweeney had asked how DeCroce could know what it's like to be out of work when his wife makes $120,000 a year working for the governor. Betty Lou DeCroce, the longtime Roxbury clerk, was hired in April as a deputy commissioner at the Department of Community Affairs.

The partisan squabble began after Alex DeCroce told an audience of business leaders Tuesday that New Jersey's unemployment benefits are too generous and provide no incentive for the jobless to return to work.

"I'm one of the few people here . . . who feel that benefits are too good for these people," DeCroce told a New Jersey Business and Industry Association audience during an economic outlook forum. "Why go to work? If you can go for 26 weeks collecting $550 a week and you get an extension for another 26, that's close to $27,000 a year or $30,000 a year, and a lot of people figure, 'Why go to work?' "

Sweeney and Oliver, who were on the legislative panel, were still seething Wednesday.

"I'm inviting the assemblyman right now, pick the day and come to my union hall at 6 o'clock in the morning and tell people who haven't worked in a year, looking for a job, getting up every day looking and hoping and praying for a job because they are on the verge of losing their homes, come explain to those people why those people aren't doing the right thing," Sweeney said. "This assemblyman owes every single unemployed person in the state an apology, and he should issue it today."

Oliver, in a statement, asked DeCroce to whom "these people" referred. She said DeCroce owed an apology to every resident who is out of work.

"Trust me, no one surviving on unemployment benefits is enjoying the experience and living the good life," Oliver said. "To even imply such a thing is insulting."

DeCroce apologized only for not expressing himself more effectively. He blamed Democrats who control the Legislature for failing to fix the state's unemployment fund, which is $1.7 billion in the red to the federal government.

Business owners face an automatic increase in unemployment insurance taxes of up to $400 per employee in July unless something is done. Last year, legislation lessened the tax increase to $130 per employee.

The state Department of Labor announced that New Jersey added 10,000 jobs in November and that unemployment held steady at 9.2 percent, just below the national average, 9.8 percent. The Legislature has been working this week on bills that aim to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

The Department of Labor also is moving ahead with rules that make it more difficult for workers who quit or are fired for misconduct to collect unemployment.