Where are the workers Connecticut employers are trying to find? It's complicated.
As widespread labor shortages began making headlines this year, one camp of people blamed increased unemployment benefits while another indicated employers just needed to pay a living wage.
But multiple studies have found enhanced federal unemployment benefits haven't played a large role in labor shortages, and industries that aren't low-wage are also struggling to hire.
Talk to economists and the unemployed, and you'll also hear a lot of other factors why there are fewer people joining the workforce. Some are afraid of contracting COVID-19 or don't want to follow vaccine mandates. Frontline workers cite burnout, and others decided to take the opportunity to retire. Parents are struggling with access to childcare. Those looking to change careers often don't match the skills that employers are seeking.
On the one side, there's employers who can't get people to show up for job interviews, and on the other, job seekers are getting met with rejection.
"I just think we're in a period right now of great transition," said Patrick Flaherty, director of research at the Connecticut Department of Labor. He later added, "I don't think there's any one thing, or any two things or even any three things."
A recent trend that's "very unusual," he said, is the high number of voluntary job quits. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that quits increased to 4.4 million in September, the highest on record.
"It's like the whole country is in some kind of union renegotiation," economist Betsey Stevenson told The New York Times.
Research the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City released in August found that if the share of retirees in the U.S. population increased by the same rate as the previous decade, the number of retirees would've increased by 1.5 million people during the pandemic. Instead, it increased by 3.6 million, due to a sharp drop in retirees rejoining the labor force. But using Census data through October, Indeed economist Nick Bunker noted earlier this month that more retired workers over age 65 are "unretiring."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 10.4 million job openings and 7.7 million people unemployed in September.
According to an analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Connecticut was one of just eight states in August with more unemployed people than job openings, with 0.8 job openings per unemployed person.
Still, the Connecticut Department Labor noted the October average of 9,533 new job postings per week was the highest on record. For the week ending Nov. 20, the largest increase in new ads occurred in health care and transportation; the employers in those sectors with the most ads were Hartford HealthCare and UPS.
Connecticut's unemployment rate fell from 6.8% to 6.4% from September to October. But the state still has about 20,000 more people unemployed now than before the pandemic, Flaherty said, and the federal unemployment rate is just 4.6%.
According to CTDOL data, for the week ending Nov. 13, the total number of people being paid unemployment benefits reached its lowest level since December 2019.
CTDOL spokesperson Juliet Manalan said benefits vary based on job and salary history, but that the average benefit is about $300 weekly and the maximum a person can receive is $685. Regular benefits are 26 weeks.
Connecticut also has 13-week extended benefits, which CTDOL said earlier this month about 20,000 of 45,000 weekly filers are using. The agency expects extended benefits to end by early next year, as they expire when the state's three-month unemployment average drops below 6.5%.
On top of state unemployment benefits, filers received $600 a week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation from April through July of 2020, and later $300 until the program ended Sept. 4.
Connecticut on March 19, 2020 waived work search requirements to receive unemployment benefits but reinstated the requirement effective May 30, 2021.
Manufacturing and hospitality sectors face challenges
Flaherty said there doesn't seem to be a particular pattern among industries, whereas before the pandemic, he observed a specific problem that was easy to diagnose though not easy to solve: There was a shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing, because the aging workforce was retiring without the necessary pipeline to fill those spots.
Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board President and CEO Mark Hill also indicated service-sector employees may be looking to switch to manufacturing, but there's a disconnect in skills.
EWIB runs the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, a set of free courses that has netted 2,000 job placements — most at Electric Boat in Groton — since its inception in 2016.
Hill said 94% of people graduating are getting jobs right away, compared to 92% in the past. He also noted the MPI will run at least 30 training classes in the fiscal year ending June 30, whereas historically it has run 20 to 24 classes.
"While we believe it is great for the region, we have found that the increased hiring at EB has added to the shortage of workers in our region," Mohegan Sun President and General Manager Jeff Hamilton said in an email sent through a spokesperson this past week.
The casino has more than 250 openings and is "still facing some of the most significant hiring challenges we've ever had," Hamilton said. He said while culinary and hospitality jobs have been difficult to fill, he has seen upticks lately, and that hiring events "have been very beneficial in finding new talent."
He said Mohegan Sun increased starting pay over the summer, and offered a $2,000 sign-on bonus for culinary positions and a $500 bonus for housekeeping roles.
According to the casino's career portal, the lowest listed starting wage for a non-tipped job is $14 an hour. The minimum wage in Connecticut is $13 an hour, going up to $14 in July.
At SuperCharged Indoor Karting & Axe Throwing in Oakdale, general manager Zachary Davis said he is starting everyone at $15 an hour, even bartenders. He said he's been holding open hiring events for the last six months but only half the people who say they'll show up to a hiring event do.
SuperCharged has about 65 employees now, Davis said, but is looking to expand to about 120. That's because SuperCharged began offering axe throwing in September, is doing a soft opening of V's Brick Oven Pizzeria & Pub, and will open its new Ninja Wipeout park soon. Davis also said that a lot of the staff are high school students, and during the pandemic, a lot of parents didn't want their kids returning to work.
And while the pandemic permanently shuttered many businesses, the creation of new ones has surged, as people identified untapped opportunities or just wanted to work for themselves.
Analyzing Census data, economist John Haltiwanger found that applications for Employer Identification Numbers rose more than 20% from 2019 to 2020. He also found that for each month between August 2020 and April 2021, the number of applications was higher than for any month between 2004 and the beginning of the pandemic.
New applications for likely employers increased but not by as much as applications for likely nonemployer startups, which reflects people who are self-employed. Haltiwanger said nonemployer businesses have rapidly accelerated since 2010, which "reflects an increase in the gig economy including and especially the ridesharing industries."
Groton resident Michael Whitehouse, a networking coach and Uber driver, noted that gig work can allow for both more flexibility and better pay.
"You can work for $13 or $14 at some retailer or fast-food place, or you can work for twice that driving around," he said. "I wouldn't even consider a retail or fast food to supplement my income. That's not even on my radar."
People who are older or disabled face barriers to employment
While age discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove, some older job seekers suspect this is why they've struggled to find a job.
In a survey AARP conducted among people ages 40 to 65 last December, 78% of the respondents said they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace — the highest level since the association began tracking the question in 2003.
"Age is the one thing that will impact all of us, and it isn't considered by so many hiring managers — by so many companies — as part of an inclusive culture," said Nora Duncan, Connecticut state director for AARP.
Duncan also said software that screens job applications "can get rid of really valuable people," and that applying to jobs online is "kind of like teaching to the test."
A Norwich man in his early 70s looking for work, who didn't wish to be named, feels that employers don't want older people. He also thinks that since he's been unemployed since March 2020, "that's a red flag for some people, saying, 'Oh, this guy's lazy; he doesn't want to work.'"
He said he was making about $45,000 a year before the pandemic and "not everybody's going to rush out to work for $13 an hour or $14 an hour," but that he'd like to work and "being home is not a joy."
Elizabeth Prete, 62, said she hasn't faced age discrimination, but she and friends her age have been frustrated by online applications. A cook who now works for Stonington Public Schools, she said applying for her previous job at the William W. Backus Hospital was the first time she'd applied for a job online.
"It seemed like an awful lot of hoops to jump through for an application," she said. "Back in the old days, you had a resume and you walked in, you handed over your resume, you got a call back."
People with disabilities also face barriers to employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with a disability was 12.6% in 2020, compared to 7.9% for people without a disability.
Disability rights advocate Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, thinks a lot of employers incorrectly believe accommodations are really expensive.
But she said an accommodation might be a cashier getting a stool, a diabetic person being allowed a snack, or someone being given the flexibility to attend a standing medical appointment every Tuesday afternoon.
She said of the flexibility and remote work offered during the pandemic, "When it was needed for everybody, all of a sudden it was possible to do, but when an individual person with a disability needed it, it was, 'Oh, we can't possibly do that.'"