By Rick Hiduk
(Originally published in Impact, a quarterly publication of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce)
As the pandemic shows serious signs of abating and life in Wyoming County returns to some sense of normalcy, it’s understandable that our residents are eager to shop more freely at their favorite businesses, schedule contractors to work on their homes and properties, and patronize their favorite pubs and eateries.
What few of us expected but are experiencing daily are reduced schedules at these businesses or a reluctance on the part of the owners to reopen at all. Many “Welcome” and “Please Wear a Mask” signs have been replaced by “Help Wanted” or “Closed on Mondays and Tuesday Due to Lack of Staff.”
What happened and how will this play out?
The reasons are unclear despite many suggesting that expanded and extended unemployment benefits became more attractive than holding a job. As Pennsylvania suspends the automatic continuation of unemployment benefits and requires that people take a job if offered, will the employment situation improve? Or did the lengthy shutdowns change the mindset of those who might have already been weary of the daily grind?
“We are seeing this in all the rural counties,” said Dennis Phillips, executive director of Trehab, a community action agency that provides services for seven counties in northeast Pennsylvania. “I don’t thing there’s an exact response. I think it’s a confluence of many different things.”
Being sent home to shelter down to reduce the spread of the coronavirus brought about monumental changes in our lifestyles, including re-engaging with our children, growing and cooking more of our own food, and taking up new hobbies that made being a homebody fashionable again.
Another unexpected outcome of the pandemic shutdowns are the number of women who seem to have permanently left the workforce, despite the gains in the past decade they had made in both pay equity and ascension to upper-level management positions. According to a report published in March by McKinsey & Company, the number of women considering leaving the workforce permanently is nearly twice that of men. Women are also at least 20 percent more likely than men to use the term “exhausted” to describe their feelings about their current work situations.
While Melissa Fleming of the Northern Tier Regional Planning & Development Commission does not have statistics regarding women leaving the workforce, she agrees that “These scenarios may be contributing to a lack of workforce, along with childcare concerns, changing school schedules and fear of the virus itself.”
When all of the restrictions are lifted, and we have the opportunity to return to our pre-COVID routines, will we find that a number of residents in Wyoming County and beyond have chosen to scale back their lives and opt out of full-time employment?
“Obviously, from a Chamber perspective, we don’t want that to happen,” said Gina Suydam, president of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce. “We want to help our member businesses find employees to fill all of their positions and bring levels of service and production back up to where they were so we can all move forward again.
“The truth is that we do have resources at the ready to take us to the next level,” Suydam continued. “Both Trehab and the NTRPDC have successful ongoing programs geared to helping employers find workers and residents find good jobs.”
The NTRPDC coordinates the state’s CareerLink program for residents and employers in five northeastern and north-central counties, including Wyoming, and provides current statistics for companies looking for ways to evolve to meet the changing demands of the economy and the workforce.
Trehab offers a robust Workforce Development program that addresses the specific needs of the underemployed and those who might have previously considered themselves unemployable.
“We’re working with people to place them wherever we can,” explained Phelps. “I think this is going to be a process that unfolds as the county responds to the level of COVID exposure.”
Trehab offers specific programs as well tailored to clients who face employment barriers due to cash assistance, incomplete education, childcare needs, or working their way through recovery programs. Employers eager to get a full workforce up and running can work with Trehab staff to help potential employees over such hurdles.
“We’re all looking for normalcy,” said Phelps, who, when interviewed in early May was as unsure as everybody as to what the protocol would be by mid to late June. “I would encourage people to call our Wyoming County office and work with them in a case management approach to help them move forward from one situation to a better one.”
In the meantime, Dennis encourages patience. “Our workforce program will be on the ground responding appropriately and making the connection to help help employers fill those jobs,” he remarked. “But I think it’s going to take some time.”
The Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce also maintains a list of available jobs at www.business.wyccc.com/jobs, and we encourage our members to share their specific employment needs with us.