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Even with high unemployment, Connecticut employers struggle to fill open positions

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Leo Roche has never had as much difficulty as he has now hiring at his three restaurants — The Black Sheep in Niantic, The Harp and Hound in Mystic and The Brazen Hen in Westerly. And he said all restaurants are in the same boat.

"We just can't find anybody. Everybody's saying the same thing," Roche said. He said he's looking for about 10 or 15 people, and that kitchen staff are particularly difficult to get.

He said maybe people who got laid off during the pandemic found jobs outside of kitchens, ones with more job security.

A few weeks ago, restaurateur Dan Meiser — of Oyster Club, Engine Room, Grass & Bone and Nana's — cited people leaving the industry as one of three reasons he sees for hiring difficulties, along with expanded unemployment benefits and a surge in rehiring.

"It's not hard to find a restaurant job right now, so if you are a talented cook, you're probably looking at five or six or 10 different places that would love to hire you ... so everybody's fighting over that one person," Meiser said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this month there were 7.4 million job openings nationwide at the end of February, which Reuters reported was the highest level since January 2019.

"Employers are telling us that they are trying to hire folks," Patrick Flaherty, acting director of research for the Connecticut Department of Labor, said in a video Thursday. "In fact, 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. At the same time, the number of unemployed people still remains extremely high."

The state Department of Labor reported Thursday that the state's unemployment rate dropped from 8.5% in February to 8.3% in March.

But the nationwide unemployment rate in March was 6%, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Connecticut is tied with California and New Mexico for having the third-highest unemployment rate in the country, below only Hawaii and New York.

Flaherty said some people who were laid off in the beginning of the pandemic may not be able to return to the job they had, and if they were in that job for many years, they "may not have the experience in terms of job search that someone who is brand new to the labor market might have."

Economist Don Klepper-Smith said people are getting more money to not work than to work and there are economic disincentives to work, and taking away the incentives to be productive is a "dangerous situation." He also said economic policies in Connecticut have discouraged job creation.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provides $300 per week to unemployment claimants, on top of state benefits. It's in effect until September.

"There's no easy connection between getting public benefits and your willingness to work, so there's a disconnect, in a way, between the willingness of employers to bring people back and the willingness of people to go back," said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut. He repeatedly called the situation "complex."

Given the persistence of COVID-19 infections, Carstensen questioned of some jobs, "Do you really want to go back to work and take the risk when you're going to get poverty wages?"

Some people also may be hesitant to take a job that isn't remote because they're at high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19, or because they have children in remote learning and would need to find child care.

In some industries, pandemic exacerbates hiring issues

Manufacturers struggled to fill open positions well before the pandemic, with Electric Boat and its subcontractors looking to hire as submarine production ramps up but unable to find workers with the necessary skills. It's why the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board in 2016 launched the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, a free training program.

Chris Jewell of the Bozrah manufacturer Collins & Jewell said it's become harder to hire in the pandemic, and noted that "the remote learning piece isn't ideal when you're learning trades."

He said Collins & Jewell is in a "post-job hangover" after finishing three large projects but will be in full hiring mode by the middle of summer, looking for welders, fabricators and installers.

Jewell thinks the enhanced unemployment benefits have made hiring for entry-level jobs more difficult and the pandemic has pushed some older workers into retirement.

The pandemic also has compounded longstanding hiring issues for nonprofit organizations.

"They really have had difficulty filling positions, because with the low funding that they've been receiving for the services that they provide, it's often hard to pay competitive salaries," said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Nonprofit Alliance.

He said nonprofits can only pay their employees according to what they receive from the state — hence why nonprofits have been begging for more state funding for years.

Casa said nonprofit employees are "very dedicated people" who work many years at lower pay than they should, but some decide they can make minimum wage elsewhere doing less work.

Kathleen Stauffer, CEO of The Arc Eastern Connecticut, similarly said that working in direct care with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities "isn't easy; it requires that you maintain a certain level of care while being compassionate in that care and thinking on your feet and making snap decisions, so people can just work the window at Dunkin' Donuts."

She added, "If you raise the minimum wage in Connecticut and you do not give direct support professionals $18 a hour, you will create a human services disaster."

The Arc has 35 positions open now, and Stauffer said, "having more than 10 is kind of a red flag." The jobs are direct-support positions making $14.75 an hour, which is the state's minimum wage for workers caring for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Tamra Rodriguez, vice president of human resources at Sound Community Services, said the nonprofit has about nine positions open now. Most are in residential facilities, and Rodriguez said these positions are staying open for longer than they did before the pandemic.

She said there are still candidates out there who are concerned about returning to the workplace and many are looking for remote work.

"Especially with the state opening up right now, there are a lot of employers who are hiring, so I think candidates have a lot of choices now," Rodriguez said. "It's their market."

e.moser@theday.com

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