York County unemployment stabilizing as employers across board compete for new hires

Matt Enright
York Dispatch
A patron exits Old Navy at Manchester Crossroads, passing a sign advertising for employees Monday, May 17, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

More than a year into the COVID-19 crisis that has battered the job market, Pennsylvania and York County are starting to stabilize.

In fact, York County's unemployment rate has been lower than the state's rate throughout the pandemic.

In March 2020, when the first lockdowns began, York County's unemployment rate was 4.9%, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. That rose to 15.3% in April of 2020; as of March 2021, the county's unemployment rate had fallen to 6.2%.

Pennsylvania's unemployment rate was 5.1% at the beginning of the pandemic. That rose to 16.2% in April 2020 before coming down to 7.3% in March 2021. 

So why has York County done consistently better with its unemployment rate compared with the state at large? And what can be done to reduce it further?

More:As York County industries return to normal, labor shortages ramp up competition

More:Changed by pandemic, many workers won’t return to old jobs

York County Economic Alliance President and CEO Kevin Schreiber said he believes the difference is the result of the diverse economy York County has.

"Our labor force was comprised of about 18% within manufacturing and 17% within health care," he said of the prepandemic numbers. "Both of those industries were certainly impacted, but in the spectrum of impact they were less impacted than other industries, say retail or hospitality."

Schreiber said having a sizable amount of the labor force in manufacturing and health care helped weather the economic storm of the pandemic. However, a significant amount of the population is involved in industries such as retail, which employs 11.2% of the workforce, and hospitality, which employs 7.9%. Those industries were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

With vaccines becoming more widespread and restrictions beginning to be lifted, people have begun turning their attention to getting back into the workforce. Schreiber said workforce development had been top of mind before the pandemic.

"It was highly competitive, and we saw wage rates being very competitive and increasing or competitive employers poaching from each other," he said. 

Nationally, concerns with unemployment packages have seen 21 states end their participation in federal unemployment programs that provide a $300 bonus to unemployment checks. That includes Texas, Florida and Iowa. The concern is that potential job seekers make more off of unemployment than if they had a job, encouraging them to collect unemployment rather than seek a job.

'It's easier to stay at home': "It's not only the hospitality industry; it's every industry that's out there," Racehorse Tavern owner Jim DeLisio said in an interview Thursday. DeLisio is the York County Tavern Association president and is a board member of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage/Tavern Association.

The extension of unemployment benefits created a society of entitlement, DeLisio said.

"You can't get anybody to work and they don't want to work because it's easier to stay at home, and we send stimulus checks and we keep sending this and sending that," he said. "Why would you want to do anything if the government is gonna give it to you?"

Another concern DeLisio highlighted was the disruption of the supply chain that resulted in higher prices for certain products. Chicken wings were an example, he said; it's difficult to get them, and they're much more expensive. 

A sign advertising for employees is posted outside the Sheetz store at 1484 Carlisle Rd. Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

Competitive economy: Ultimately, Schreiber said, there will be some sort of reconciliation in the economy as employers become more competitive for talent. That may include higher wages or signing bonuses for getting a job. 

"I am certain that there's a portion of the population that may be earning more with unemployment and the pandemic relief as that extra sort of bump, but I don't think that's the vast majority of folks," he said. "I think we're still in sort of a very heightened, competitive economy, and we're seeing sort of that reconciliation of wage rates and the workforce."

Schreiber noted that demographic data is important when considering unemployment. For example, unemployment disproportionately impacts women and people of color, according to YCEA data. Nationally, women are exiting the workforce at an alarming rate largely due to issues such as child care. According to data from the National Women's Law Center, women only accounted for 34.4% of jobs gained in March, and it would take nearly 15 straight months of that job gain to recover jobs lost since February 2020.

"We need to be focused on it, but we also need to recognize it's a different unemployment rate for different communities and different demographic segments," Schreiber said. "There are issues related to that, like child care or the affordability of child care, that are going to continue to prove an impediment to an individual's ability to get back to work." 

Added value: York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said another reason for the lower unemployment rates is that York County is continually looking for new ways to attract job seekers. For example, YCEA began holding virtual job fairs last year during the pandemic.

"I think it's just looking at new ways to get the message out about what is available from a job perspective," she said. 

Wheeler said that with the influx of funding to help the hospitality industry, such as the American Rescue Plan, she was hopeful that restaurants would be able to expand their operations. Capacity restrictions are set to end June 1, allowing restaurants to go back to full capacity. 

"I'm optimistic that we'll be able to see our unemployment rate at lower levels than maybe other communities," she said.

In terms of attracting people back to the workforce, Wheeler noted that it's not just about the pay rate but the whole package of a job. 

"I think employers will look at (highlighting) the things that will maybe put their place of employment ahead of somebody else's based on the additional value they provide," she said. 

Expanded benefits: However, Wheeler echoed the concerns about generous unemployment compensation raised by DeLisio.

"That seems to be something on the top of mind of many of the businesses in this community," she said. "I hear that a lot from employers in the area."

DeLisio said it's time to move away from expanded unemployment benefits and institute job search requirements for beneficiaries.

"Unemployment has become a job for people, and that's the problem," he said.

He said he has been able to keep his employees during the pandemic and is looking to hire more for the summer. Restaurants have been allowing workers to mix and match schedules between different establishments to help them earn a living.

"There are some people that want to earn a living rather than have something handed to them for nothing, and I appreciate and commend those people because they're the backbone of America and they're the ones that are going to get us out of this pandemic," DeLisio said.