High rates of unemployment get a lot of attention, both as a symptom of economic malaise and as a drag on growth.

The situation for those who have jobs also matters a lot, as a new federal report on earnings and hours worked shows.

If the earnings of working people are stagnant, or the hours they’re working are falling, they’re not in a position to increase spending and help get a sluggish economy up to speed. Since about 70 percent of the economy is based on consumer spending, that matters.

The good news is that earnings are headed in the right direction in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, areas whose jobless rates have been among the highest in the nation.

In the year ended in March, average weekly earnings by private employees increased 14 percent in Cumberland County, 11 percent in Cape May County and 5 percent in Atlantic County, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday.

The increase in Cumberland County was the largest in the state, and that in Cape May County the second-largest.

The increases are all well above the 2 percent earnings increase for New Jersey, which is itself a bit above the national average increase.

Atlantic County would have gained in earnings almost as much as its neighbors if it weren’t for a nearly 2 percent drop in average hours worked each week. In Cumberland County, hours worked jumped 4 percent, and 3 percent in Cape May County.

With the decline in hours worked, private employees in Atlantic County were averaging just 30.4 hours a week, the fewest in the state.

Statewide, average hours worked were unchanged from the year before at 33.6 hours.

So far, so good.

But keep in mind that our region starts from the state’s lowest income levels for employees.

Statewide, the weekly average for March of this year was $899. Locally, weekly earnings were $703 in Atlantic County, $745 in Cape May County and $776 in Cumberland County.

A year ago, average weekly earnings in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties were all within $10 of each other, so the past year has seen Atlantic County workers fall behind their neighbors despite their 7 percent average increase in hourly pay.

To see why, look in the federal report’s breakdown by industry.

The worst performing sector in New Jersey the past year has been leisure and hospitality. Earnings for such workers have fallen more than 1 percent, the only major industry to see earnings decline the past year. Hours worked are down a percentage point too.

Leisure and hospitality already was the lowest-paying sector in the state by far, and now average weekly earnings are just $362 — less than half the state average for all industries.

The decline might in part reflect restaurants and other businesses shifting workers to fewer than 30 hours a week to avoid making them subject to the health insurance mandate coming under federal health care reform.

In Atlantic County, leisure and hospitality is dominated by the casino industry. Its struggles now seem to be preventing the area from rebounding at the same pace as the rest of the region.

Second wave

The expected second wave of foreclosures in New Jersey is preventing it from participating in the nationwide decline in distressed properties.

While U.S. foreclosure filings in April dropped 23 percent from the same month the year before, foreclosures jumped 104 percent in New Jersey, RealtyTrac reported Thursday.

The 87 filings in Atlantic County were up 74 percent from the year before; Cape May County’s 42 filings up 74 percent also; and Cumberland County’s 56 filings were a 63 percent increase.

Processing of foreclosures, which long had been delayed by New Jersey courts, has resumed and a large backlog is being addressed.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250