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Employees have the upper hand after the ‘great resignation,’ but for how long?

Baltimore Sun - 9/2/2022

Even before the pandemic, finding and keeping employees to work as job and community coaches for The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region could be challenging.

But the Aberdeen-based nonprofit, which serves more than 400 adults with disabilities and another 300 client families, now finds itself — like so many employers — needing dozens of workers.

The group was used to turnover as workers left for higher-paying jobs, but it shed even more during the pandemic as those who were parents dealt with kids learning at home or the lack of child care.

And many people in the pool of potential workers are now demanding — and getting — remote work. That’s not an option for those who train and support Arc clients at work or in daily living.

“Getting people to come back to the workforce has been trying,” said Shawn Kros, CEO of The Arc NCR. “It’s a tough market.”

“There’s always been a crisis in this front-line workforce of ours with people with disabilities. COVID just ... made a fragile system even more fragile,” she said.

More than two years after the emergence of COVID-19, employers throughout the Baltimore region and elsewhere are dealing this Labor Day weekend with the fallout of a radically changed workplace.

In a phenomenon that’s come to be called the “great resignation,” workers are resigned at record levels, “switching jobs and industries, moving from traditional to nontraditional roles, retiring early, or starting their own businesses ... taking time out ... or embarking on sabbaticals,” researchers for McKinsey & Co. said in a July report. Then there are the “quiet quitters,” a term coined on social media to describe workers who stay, but work only to the clock, doing the minimum to remain employed.

Like employers across the Baltimore region, Arc has boosted wages and sweetened benefits as it competes for people with more job choices and less job loyalty. At Arc, hourly pay has been increased from $12 to $17 and can reach $20 with additional certifications. The organization touts its signing bonuses, tuition reimbursement, and flexible hours, schedules and locations. It recently made applying even easier.

An estimated 3.4 million people have left the U.S. labor force since February 2020, and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis in August shows shortages impacting all industries in every state. U.S. Department of Labor statistics released Tuesday show 11.2 million open jobs at the end of July, up from 9.3 million open jobs in April 2021. Labor force participation does not match the rate prior to the pandemic, the chamber’s report said.

“If every unemployed worker took an open job in their industry, there would still be millions of open jobs,” said the report, which cited early retirements and less immigration as contributing to the deficit.

In addition, the report said, “boosted unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, and child tax credits have padded the finances of some previously employed workers, and they no longer need to work.”

While the U.S. economy appears headed toward a recession, competition for top talent remains fierce.

A survey released in late August showed 80% of companies taking steps to make hiring easier. The Harris Poll, commissioned by Express Employment Professionals, found a third of companies offering higher starting salaries and nearly a third offering hiring bonuses. More than a quarter said they offer remote work or increased benefits such as paid time off and flexibility. Others are offering more internships and reducing criteria to qualify for open jobs.

Employers in the Baltimore-Washington region need administrative and customer service and data entry roles, forklift operators, order pickers, shipping receivers and clerks, delivery drivers and machine operators, said Jim Craig, owner of an Express Employment office in Columbia that helps staff manufacturers, distributors and others.

Some businesses that temporarily closed during the pandemic had difficulty getting workers to return, he said. Some wanted, and still want, stay-at-home work.

“Virtually all of the clients are having the very same challenges ... struggling to find good talent,” Craig said, and many have responded this year with some of the most dramatic pay increases in decades. “Jobs that were paying $13 maybe coming out of the pandemic a year ago ... are minimum $16 to $17 an hour now.”

But increased rates haven’t necessarily led to an improved quality of candidates, frustrating employers, he said. And turnover remains high.

“Employees are jumping ship, because they might be making $15 an hour and they see the same job being advertised by other employers for $17 or $18 an hour,” Craig said.

Klein’s Family Market, a family-owned chain of nine stores affiliated with ShopRite, is understaffed by about nearly 200 people, said Sarah Klein, director of front end operations.

Even at higher rates of pay, it’s difficult to find cashiers, Klein said. That’s led the Forest Hill-based grocer to expand self checkout to all stores and to rely more on less labor-intensive online ordering for platters and cakes. Stores set schedules for restocking around times when employees are available.

“We’ve really just been challenged through this whole labor market,” Klein said. “Everybody is paying such high rates that you are competing with everybody now. People might come in and want a job in our store, and the next day they get a job offer that’s 50 cents higher or $1 higher ... and they don’t come [back] to work.”

As companies reach limits on pay, many are trying to differentiate themselves in other ways, said Jeanniey Walden, chief innovation officer and marketing officer of New York-based DailyPay. The payroll services company serves national retailers and grocers, fast-food and quick-serve restaurants, hospitals and home health care providers, giving hourly workers access to pay on demand as they earn it.

The company, which tracks trends for employer clients, has found that about 40% of employees are likely to quit in the post-COVID job market, making them statistically more loyal to their cable providers than to their employers, she said.

“Employees really started to get the upper hand as far as job choice satisfaction,” Walden said. “They started to act more like consumers than employees.”

That only recently started to shift slightly, with the recession and some recent layoffs, she said, but hourly workers remain in high demand.

In another shift, Walden said, “a lot of employees quite enjoyed hybrid or remote lifestyle and they didn’t want to give that up,” especially as rising gas prices drove up commuting costs.

“It was starting to become cost-prohibitive for some hourly workers to even get to work,” she said.

Employers have responded with benefits such as free lunch at the office and subsidies for transportation, child care or pet care. Demand for DailyPay’s on-demand pay service has grown, Walden said, becoming a popular recruiting tool. With inflation at record highs, workers are tapping into the benefit to cover basics such as groceries and transportation.

Northern Chesapeake Arc has about 60 positions to fill, Kros said. Most are “front-line” employment and community coaches who interact one-on-one with clients, a mix of full-time and part time, as well as shifts that can include day, evening or overnight.

While facing shortages, the group also finds itself benefiting from the migration of workers fleeing other careers in search of more flexibility or a change of pace. Recently, the organization hired several former teachers, a profession struggling with its own shortages in the Baltimore region.

“When we talk to people, we’re not only talking about the benefits we have, but the chance to benefit a person’s life and truly change a person’s life for the better,” Kros said.

Jessica Brockmeyer left a job teaching high school English and drama in Harford County after 23 years and became an employment coach for Arc a couple of months ago.

“I just sort of felt overworked and undervalued,” Brockmeyer said. “I loved teaching, but with COVID and the way the community looked at teachers, I had to leave.”

She works with about 20 clients who are either seeking and training for work, starting new jobs or continuing in established jobs. She offers follow-up support for longer-term employees such as Lester Harris, a 40-year-old Aberdeen resident, and Eric Dowell, a 36-year-old Havre de Grace resident, who work as janitors at Rite Aid’s distribution center in Aberdeen.

On Wednesday, Brockmeyer met with Harris and Dowell during their breaks to see if they felt comfortable with their tasks or needed help resolving any issues. She talked with their supervisor and observed and chatted with the two employees as they wiped down tables and chairs in the employee cafeteria.

Even though she took a pay cut to become a job coach, the change has been worth it, Brockmeyer said.

“It’s exciting, it’s a different job every single day, with lots of positive impact, and definitely less stress,” she said. “I’m not taking the job home at the end of the day or on weekends ... And I feel like I’m making an impact giving back to my community.”

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