As Unemployment Remains Double Pre-Pandemic Levels, Businesses Struggle to Hire Workers


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“I’ve never seen so many ‘We’re Hiring’ signs,” said Mel Goggin, owner of Mel’s Downtown Creamery, which has locations in Pawcatuck and Colchester. 

Her ice cream shops should be rearing up for a busy, eventful summer, but they’ve run into a roadblock reported by many Connecticut small businesses: hiring. Goggin said she’s struggled to hire enough workers to operate her creameries, with job postings languishing online getting few relevant responses. Even their ice cream supplier is struggling to find workers, leaving “a lot of flavors out of stock” in her creameries.

While Goggin said she’d love to offer higher wages to attract potential employees, she said that with increased operating expenses due to social distancing restrictions and higher costs, it’s not sustainable for her business. For example, Goggin said that the cost of gloves has tripled since last year. 

“A case of gloves that was $320 last year is $1,000 now,” Goggin said. “I’m trying to keep prices the same, deal with new expenses, and attract new workers all at the same time.” 

Connecticut’s unemployment rate is currently just above 8 percent, still more than double the state’s pre-pandemic rate. As of February, there were 7.4 million job openings nationwide, the most since January 2019, according to Reuters

“Employers are telling us that they are trying to hire folks,” said Patrick Flaherty, acting director of research for the Connecticut Department of Labor, in a video from April. “The number of job postings has been increasing, and we’ve increasingly found evidence of employers attempting to hire and not being able to find the folks to take those jobs.” 

While Goggin said she can’t be sure what’s led to the difficulties with hiring workers, she said she has no doubt that childcare challenges play a significant role. A mother of young children herself, Goggin said that the unpredictable schedules that come with juggling remote or hybrid schooling can make it hard to know availability to work certain shifts in advance. She’s noticed similar numbers of high school students applying to the creameries, but has seen far fewer older applicants.  

Ashley Zane, government affairs associate for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said she’s heard similar concerns.

“If you have a young child who is school-aged, you don’t know if your child is going to be remote or in person on any given day, so finding reliable childcare can be difficult, which makes it hard to get shift work,” Zane said. “The lack of predictability in schools is a huge issue for getting people to return to the workforce.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau Weekly Household Pulse survey from late April, 11 percent of Americans — neither working nor retired — reported not working to care for children not in school or daycare. Other reasons included concern about contracting COVID-19, caring for someone with the virus or battling it themselves, or not wanting to be employed. 

For the seven percent of Americans who reported concern about getting or spreading COVID-19, Connecticut’s vaccine rollout could bring some calm, and improve the situation for business owners looking for employees. Zane said she’s hearing that workers are concerned about their health and safety returning to high-contact jobs in the service industry, so she’s optimistic that increased vaccination rates and safer work environments will make people feel safer returning to the workplace. Businesses are also highlighting the safety of their workplaces in job postings, Zane said, in hopes of ensuring more confidence. 

Andrew Field, owner of Noah’s Restaurant in Stonington, said that as a father of two children in elementary school, he knows that trying to figure out how to care for kids through distance learning is a real barrier to reentering the job market.  

Field also thinks many restaurant employees lost faith in the service industry in the beginning of the pandemic, and that there have been “a fair amount of defectors.” Field posted an ad looking for a daytime breakfast cook four weeks ago, and has only received four applications, which he estimates is maybe a quarter of what they would have received pre-pandemic. 

“We have a constant stream of ads going out and around and around, but ultimately, we’re all kind of fishing in a similar pond, and the pond has been picked through,” Field said.  

John Lombardo, general manager of Saybrook Point Resort & Marina, said he was on a conference call with 50 general managers from across the country last month, and they were asked to share their number one challenge. 

“Every single one of us said staffing,” Lombardo said. “Right when business is increasing again, we can’t find qualified staff at all.” 

Lombardo said that for a kitchen job they recently posted, the resort has received 11 applications, but only two of them were candidates with anything close to the relevant experience. Lombardo attributed this to online hiring platforms that allow applicants to send their resumes out en masse, without even knowing much about the jobs they apply for. One of those 11 applicants, Lambardo said, lives in the Bronx. 

While this has been a problem for years, Lombardo said he’s seeing a far smaller proportion of relevant applicants, which he attributes to increased unemployment benefits making it easier for qualified hospitality workers to stay home. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which is in place until September, provides an additional $300 each week on top of state benefits. 

“I have people coming to me and saying, why should I work when I can sit at home and collect unemployment and make more than I would if I went to work,” Lombardo said. “Extending unemployment benefits through September was the biggest misstep.” 

An analysis of unemployment benefits between May and October 2020, co-authored by Peter Ganong, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago’s Harris School, estimated that unemployment was only between 0.2 and 0.4 percent higher as a result of supplemental employment benefits encouraging workers to stay home rather than reenter the workforce.

“Our central empirical result about job-finding behavior is that the exit rate from unemployment is relatively constant between May and October, despite massive fluctuations in benefit levels over this time period.”

But many business owners CT Examiner interviewed for this story cited employment benefits as a reason for workers to stay home, and said that their own, often pandemic-induced financial constraints made them unable to offer wages competitive with the supplemental benefits. 

Lombardo said that offering higher wages to entice workers was not yet an option they’d explored, but that he is trying to entice qualified workers with a new policy allowing new employees at the resort to advance higher up on the payscale from the start if they come into the position with previous work experience. He also said that Saybrook Point Resort is focusing on employee outreach to fill its gaps, hosting a job fair on May 15 and highlighting employee benefits through advertisements and social media. 

Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, said she hears from businesses every day struggling to find employees. 

“It’s a real source of frustration,” Konicki said. “Businesses have gone through such an intensely difficult set of circumstances to survive and make it to this point in time.” 

Konicki said that many restaurants in her region rely on temporary international employees with J1 visas who come to the shoreline for the summer.  

“Many companies who’ve previously relied on J1 visa staff are scrambling, especially in the hospitality industry,” Konicki said.  

Konicki said her businesses are taking different approaches to deal with the crisis. 

“Our goal is to promote opportunities, the business owners have to decide where to apply resources,” Konicki said. “Whether that’s with adding to hourly wage or cutting back on hours of operation, they have to look at what the net impact is on the bottom line.”