A lack of employees has businesses scrambling as they try to fully reopen now that COVID-19 restrictions in Pennsylvania are fading.
While restaurants are particularly hard hit, other sectors also are feeling the pinch. Everywhere in the Delaware Valley, “help wanted” signs adorn business doors and windows. So, where have all the workers gone? Is it higher government unemployment benefits, a lack of childcare, or a mismatch in job skills? Or is there still a fear of contracting COVID-19 despite the high vaccination numbers and the steady decrease in COVID cases?
Before the pandemic struck, Brian Brown, 35, was a waiter at Bonefish Grill in Willow Grove. He’s been collecting unemployment for more than a year but is thinking about going back to work.
“If I’m going to go back into a restaurant, I want to go back to one as good as Bonefish,” Brown said. “I do want to go back to work because it’s hard to meet new people and that’s one of the benefits of working.”
Meanwhile, the Cheltenham resident manages to pay rent to his parents, fund his car and cellphone expenses, along with his gym membership, with his unemployment checks. He’d also had some savings before the pandemic layoffs began.
“It’s not as much as I was making, before but it helps,” Brown said.
“Businesses across the board are having a hard time with people coming back to work,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. “Not just restaurants and hotels.”
While some people receive more in government benefits than they can make at a job, “from what I’m hearing, that is only part of the situation. I do think it’s a multifaceted problem,” he said.
State shutdowns “with no rhyme or reason,” including one right before Christmas also hurt the restaurant industry.
“We are trying to portray (to potential employees) that is unlikely to happen again,” said Longstreet.
There’s a proposal in the state legislature to use federal American Rescue Plan funds to pay returning workers $1,200 if they’re full-time and $600 if they’re part-time as a return to work incentive, he said. Another proposal would pay childcare benefits.
And this week the association is kicking off a marketing campaign called “Level Up” to show prospective restaurant and hotel workers examples of people who started in the ranks and have moved up while also highlighting the fact that working in the industry is enjoyable. Some 80 percent of people who own restaurants began as line workers, said Longstreet, who began his own career as a dishwasher.
An employee at Abington Memorial Hospital, who asked that her name not be used, said the hospital is having problems finding and retaining employees with low-level skills, such as cleaners and food service workers, although they are offering $15 an hour pay. She estimated her department is down 35 percent and some people are working 60-hour weeks and cannot take vacations.
A spokesperson for the hospital, which is part of the Jefferson Health system, did not respond when asked to comment.
Indeed a report in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal said there are a record 9.3 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., the highest since 2000.
Meanwhile, some employers are finding workers by offering incentives. Longstreet said Red Robin restaurants offered a $1,000 signing bonus and quickly hired the 100 or so employees the chain needed. Others have offered gift cards, he said.
“Part of (the problem is) they’re making a lot of money to stay home,” Longstreet said.
But Ioana Marinescu, assistant professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the situation is not straightforward. She said in an email that increased benefits from April to June 2020 did not reduce employment, even if job applications declined.
“The reason is that there were too few vacancies compared to the number of people looking for jobs, so the few jobs still out there were getting more applications than before the pandemic,” Marinescu said. “Now, there is an increase in the number of job postings so it is possible that the reduction in applications caused by unemployment insurance contributes to reducing job finding.
“Because of higher unemployment benefits, employers may be getting fewer applications for each job than before the pandemic,” she said. “However, no one has quantified this (for the current round of benefits), and we cannot tell how big the influence of unemployment insurance is on job finding relative to other factors such as concerns about health or lack of childcare. In this sense, Biden is correct to say ‘nothing measurable.’”
But there is also an economic benefit from unemployment compensation, she said.
“Further, it’s important to note that unemployment benefits also stimulate consumption, which creates jobs, and this effect can counteract the effect on job applications,” she said. “By stimulating consumption, unemployment benefits contribute to increasing job creation and ultimately employment. This consumption effect is likely to be stronger now than last year because the economy is reopening and people have more opportunities to consume and lower concerns about infection.
“In that sense, employers should remember that while higher benefits may make workers less enthusiastic about taking their jobs, higher benefits also give them more customers,” she said. “Therefore, my educated guess is that higher unemployment benefits are still on net a positive contribution to the economy, especially when considering their insurance effect, (for example) the fact that they help out people whose income would otherwise be much lower.”
But beginning in July, Pennsylvania unemployment recipients must show they are trying to find a job and as of September an additional federal COVID stipend will end, so those changes may help the situation.
However, Guy Ciarrocchi, president and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, said his members flat out need more workers now.
“This is a national problem in scope; but, it is a crisis in Pennsylvania and, other states that locked down too much for too long. The sectors of the economy most affected are hospitality, retail, and manufacturing.”
“There is an economic crisis in Pennsylvania,” Ciarrocchi said. “Our unemployment rate is far worse than the national average; and, so far, the governor is either unaware of this, indifferent to it, or unwilling to try to fix it. The governor’s decisions exaggerated a national problem and require, swift, decisive action.
“The good news is jump-starting Pennsylvania’s economy is not difficult nor does it require spending money,” he said. e recommends the state require people on unemployment compensation actively seek work; suspend the additional $300 a week in federal pandemic unemployment except for rare cases; open all schools full-time, including summer school; and have common-sense, limited liability protection to encourage full reopening.
“In short: encourage work, reward work, and encourage living,” Ciarrocchi said. “Party, live, and work like it’s 2019!”