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DelVal Workers Slowly Returning to the Office

“The pandemic is over,” President Joe Biden told 60 Minutes last week — but do Delaware Valley workers agree?

Biden has stepped up his advocacy for employees to return to their normal work routines, sending  a letter to federal workers urging them to show Americans the time is right to return to work as COVID cases decline.

“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” Biden said. “People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person. The workplace enables a sense of teamwork and belonging.”

At many companies, hybrid work settings have become the norm in a post-pandemic world. Hybrid work is a flexible working model where employees work partly in the physical workplace and partly remotely – at home or from another workspace.

Here in the Delaware Valley, Chris Yangello, a broker at Capital Commercial Real Estate Group, in King of Prussia says that “business is slow but steady, and anything from where we were before the pandemic would be an improvement. We are getting more and more calls and inquiries for office space recently.”

“Basic signs are going up. But business employers must tread carefully.  Offices have been the weakest area of growth in the past. But this could change dramatically. In light of the pandemic, this type of business landscape has been forever changed,” Yangello said.

But it’s hardly pre-COVID business as usual.

Bernard Dagenais, President & CEO of the 850-member Mainline Chamber of Commerce in Wayne, says his employees work two to three days per week at the chamber office.

“It is a matter of culture vs. choice,” said Dagenais. “The trend throughout the Delaware Valley region is hybrid, with some segmenting members requiring in-person, and some members only requiring two to three days per week. Larger companies, culturally, are requiring four to five days per week. Some embrace remote work. Some incentivize to compel workers to stay in the office.”

Not everyone is buying into the remote work model. Celebrity CEO Elon Musk of Tesla (and perhaps, eventually, Twitter) issued a strict return-to-office edict this spring, informing employees on May 31 that they would need to “spend a minimum of forty hours in the office per week.” Return-to-office advocates argue something is lost by not being in person, like team building.  It is harder to assure a strong company culture when people work at home. Member companies are encouraging younger workers to work in person to develop needed interaction skills.

Kevin McCann, a five-year business owner of the SearchStone Partners recruiting firm in Doylestown, with 28 years specializing in the food, beverage, and flavors industry, says that the “trend over the past year is to get workers back to the office quicker.”

“But there is a blend – some have gone back, and some are more productive at home,” he said. “Some corporate cultures have suffered because workers have lost their teamwork ability – a big tradeoff cost.  Over the past two years, sales and corporate operations workers have worked from home, while marketing and research & development have worked from the office. Hybrid test kitchens have also worked from home.”

“Productivity in this industry may not have actually suffered from being at home. It could be a matter of enticement, although one must draw the line somewhere,”  he said.

Overall, the general sentiment within the industry is to get back to work. However, some who’ve been working from home say they are not going back.

Kimberly Tinari, president of Rowland Personnel in Newtown Square, which serves law, engineering, manufacturing, and industrial firms in Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties and Philadelphia, says “In general, employers want workers back in the office.”

“They were amenable to workers working at home at the start of the pandemic. Over this period of time since the pandemic, there has been a noticeable productivity drop. Employers, therefore, want white-collar workers back into the office, although candidates themselves want remote work to stay at home,” she said.

“The pendulum will eventually swing back,” Tinari said. “Although right now this trend of workers wanting to stay at home is unsustainable. Younger workers will have to change their attitude about staying at home. They simply can’t hold out over the long run.”

Employers are trying to get back to pre-pandemic levels, and are seeking to snatch up new hires or experienced workers right away.

“But there is a disconnect between employers and candidates on the work-at-home issue,” she says. “This gap needs to be closed, to create a coming together. I am optimistic this will happen.”

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GOLDSTEIN: How to Ease the Worker Shortage and Fix PA’s Recidivism Problem

Two years after COVID-19 lockdowns crashed our economy, Pennsylvania is struggling to recover. There are 235,000 fewer Pennsylvanians on the job today compared to February 2020. Employers should consider the untapped potential of the 17,000 prisoners released in Pennsylvania each year.

Two of my companies, Cook Technologies and Empire Ventilation, sought to place one dozen transitioning Pennsylvanians in manufacturing jobs late last year. It seemed like a great way to help out, but it became a disaster—not because of the individuals themselves, but because no local government could match us with any workers.

We called every phone number we could find related to reentry in three Pennsylvania counties. Everyone we talked to couldn’t help — either they didn’t have any people to send us, or it wasn’t their job to assist with job placement.

There’s clear evidence that employment helps formerly incarcerated people gain economic stability and achieve successful, self-sustaining lives. But a 2018 analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative found formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent — nearly five times higher than the general population. The Department of Corrections is not required to connect prisoners with employment prior to release. Apparently, putting the formerly incarcerated to work is not a performance metric for Pennsylvania’s parole system.

Why is the criminal justice system simply ignoring the most obvious solution to recidivism?

The hiring market has never been tighter. Job creators across Pennsylvania and the nation are desperately looking for workers. According to polling from the Society for Human Resource Management, most employers would be glad to hire the formerly incarcerated to help them transition back to civilian life.

If we care about our communities, employers must do our part to give the formerly incarcerated a fighting chance at a new beginning. But we won’t get far without state and local governments making jobs after prison a priority.

In Pennsylvania, we have a highly fragmented reentry process. Every county does it differently and no one entity is responsible for what happens after prisoners are released. As difficult as the process is for employers, it is equally maddening for those individuals. Our patchwork of government and non-profit services across the commonwealth does not adequately address prisoners’ educational deficits. And the nearly 880 employment regulations on those with criminal records, including some blanket industry prohibitions and character-based occupational licensing laws, make finding a job next to impossible. Fines and fees for court costs and parole violations, along with the revocation of driver’s licenses, put jobs further out of reach.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Basic reforms to over-legislated and under-serviced aspects of our criminal justice system can help the formerly incarcerated individuals land jobs and build new lives.

First, we need a system that encourages employers to hire new workers out of the criminal justice system. Knowing who to call in every county, and what the process will be once a worker is identified, would go a long way.

Second, we should use sustained employment as a measure of how effective our anti-recidivism efforts have been. A significant measure of success for the parole and probation system should be how many formerly incarcerated people are put back to work at living wages, and how quickly it is accomplished.

Third, we must start the process of connecting employers and soon-to-be-released individuals much earlier. We know with certainty where incarcerated people are and when they’ll be released. What more could an employer want? Perhaps we can even add some state-sponsored training before the first day of employment.

Fourth, let’s reduce the long list of fines, fees, and detainers—or at least make it easier to pay them at a slower pace. Having a job is the key to earning the money that will pay these obligations, so we should start with employment before moving to penalties.

We know that a job helps those with criminal records avoid returning to prison. And we know helping people who have paid their debt to society is the right thing to do. So we have no excuse. Pennsylvania must take these steps to fight the cycle of crime and strengthen our workforce.


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