Unemployment in Pennsylvania: What’s stopping people from returning to work?

PITTSBURGH — With more than half of Pennsylvanians at least partially vaccinated and the commonwealth weeks away from reopening, COVID-19 is moving closer to the rearview mirror.

But for the hundreds of thousands statewide who remain unemployed, the pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere.

Sidonie Cowan-Page and her partner Isaac lost their jobs in the restaurant industry last spring.

Since then, they had a baby, further complicating things.

“Most jobs don’t offer childcare. If we’re both working, who is watching her? We don’t have that benefit and that luxury,” Sidonie said.

While certain details may change, their story is a familiar one among Pennsylvania’s unemployed.

We recently asked viewers on Facebook to share what’s stopping them from going back to work.

One woman named Carol said she’s having a hard time finding full-time work with benefits.

Another person named Melissa shared her story of being told by her doctor to stop working during the pandemic due to a medical issue.

“Job quality and risk factors are some of the reasons why a lot of individuals are not seeking or looking to go back to work right now,” said Markese Long, the Director of Outreach and Inclusion for Partner4Work, a Pittsburgh-based workforce development organization.

Long said he’s heard criticism that the extra $300 in unemployment benefits per month through the American Rescue Plan are deterring people from returning to the workforce, but he believes it’s also causing workers to take a serious look at their value.

“If we don’t do a good enough job of creating better job quality across the region, we’re always going to continuously have this problem,” he said.

That’s on the mind of Cowan-Page, whose unemployment benefits expire this fall. She’s looking for a job while balancing life with a 6-month-old.

“I did the best that I could as a new parent. Anybody who could sit and look me in the eye and tell me I’m a lazy person with a 6-month-old, I dare you.”

As Pennsylvania reopens local businesses are looking for workers.

The latest report shows 7.3 percent of Pennsylvanians are out of work.

But some employers are now having a difficult time finding people to fill positions.

“I spent about $400 in the last six weeks on ads,” said Bobby Kaczorowski, the owner of BRK Custom Concrete. “I tried Indeed, I tried Facebook. Nothing is really working. People respond but they want to come work for cash.”

Kaczorowski’s schedule has filled up with pool installations this spring.

Last summer, he only needed six employees as the pandemic put countless projects on hold.

Now, he needs at least 20 employees to keep up with growing demand and he’s willing to pay more to get them.

However, Kaczorowski is hearing a consistent refrain.

“Out of the 20 to 25 people I interviewed, I would say at least 15 asked to be paid under the table because they’re collecting unemployment benefits.”

In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law giving unemployed workers an additional $300 in benefits through early September.

But struggling to find workers isn’t unique to the construction industry.

Camp Kon-O-Kwee in Beaver County canceled its teen program and is limiting sessions this summer because they can’t find enough workers.

Restaurants like Primanti Brothers and Burger King are offering signing bonuses to attract candidates.

“You’re going to get paid to stay at home. I can see people’s point, why would they work? They can stay home with their families,” said Valerie Dowds, the co-owner of Stinky’s Bar and Grill in Lawrenceville.

In April, Stinky’s increased its hourly wages for most of its positions.

While things are improving, Dowds said they are still having trouble finding takers.

It’s a trend experts say is more than just a headache for business owners.

Recent employment data suggests it may be slowing down Western Pennsylvania’s economic recovery.

“I think the recovery and leisure and hospitality are really going to be driven by a handful of factors like finding the labor,” said Jim Futrell, the Vice President of Market Research for the Allegheny Conference.

In April, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry sent a letter to business owners asking them to report anyone who is unemployed that refuses work.