It’s nearing 11 a.m. Tuesday, right before the lunch rush, and Nadia Sonnacchio and Cassandra Haskell are making green salad and macaroni salads, respectively, at The Deli Downtown in Cortland.
The two are part of a work crew that has dwindled under the COVID-19 pandemic, where more than half of the prepandemic staff are gone.
Business has picked up as restrictions have dropped and people have become vaccinated, but the store is in need of workers.
The business is not alone in seeking workers, said co-owner Bob Catalfano.
“You see ‘Help Wanted’ everyplace,” he said.
Businesses across Cortland County have fared the pandemic at differing levels from closing — Frank and Mary’s, Spiedini’s Pizza Parlor — to expanding, like The Squeeze Juice Bar.
As the pandemic winds down, many businesses are focusing on hiring and recovering. Their next challenge: The work force has been shrinking for more than 10 years, and by more than 1,200 in the past two years, state Department of Labor data show.
Attracting workers and larger structural changes in how workers are supported — child-care, transportation and issues that can hamper employment — may be ways that businesses will be able to get people back into the work force and jobs and help prevent future worker shortages.
RECENT PROBLEM, LONG-TERM TREND
The hardest hit industry in Cortland County, since the pandemic began, in terms of employment and changed operations, is the hospitality industry, said Garry VanGorder, the executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp.
This included restaurants and hotels, many of which had to reduce staff, hours and, in the case of restaurants, how customers could order food.
With non-essential travel restricted at the start of the pandemic, hotels suffered, as well.
Larger businesses — such as Pall Corp., Pyrotek and McNeil & Co. — that could do remote work did so, something restaurants and hotels couldn’t do.
Still, the pandemic hit every sector, VanGorder said.
“I know folks who work at Pall Corp., they’re telling me they can’t find people,” he said.
The county unemployment rate more than doubled from 6% in March 2020 to 15.4% in April 2020 as the pandemic and restrictions set in, according to state Department of Labor data. The unemployment rate has since rebounded to 5.8% as of April 2021, the most recent data available.
But that’s a bit misleading. More telling has been the loss of workers.
Cortland County had 24,800 workers in April 2010, according to the department. That number shrunk to 21,600 in April 2021. And that number was down from 22,800 just two years ago.
VanGorder said those staying out of the work force may do so because:
• Unemployment insurance may pay more than their job.
• Parents are having a hard time finding childcare.
• People are weighing their options about retiring.
Also, people who decided to go back to school are not counted in the work force.
A SHRINKING PROBLEM
A longer trend, though, shows a shrinking work force in Cortland County. The labor force in April 2010 was 24,800, the highest since 1992, according to state Department of Labor data.
By comparison, the labor force in April 2021 was 21,600, a 13% decrease.
Even before the pandemic, many employers had job openings, VanGorder said.
“It was a real issue for business,” he said.
VanGorder said the trend has come as many businesses have not been able to hire people in positions formerly held by older workers retiring.
More so, the county has had a long-term challenge of getting younger workers into the labor force, which may be mitigated by more people becoming interested in trade jobs.
“Any of the trades provide good opportunities for people,” he said.
Businesses will have a chance to reach prospective employees with the Back 2 Work Job Fair Tuesday at SUNY Cortland’s Park Center.
• The Arc Madison Cortland.
• Albany International.
• Greek Peak.
At the same time, workers are leaving jobs now as they understand they have more freedom in where they want to work, with more places hiring, VanGorder said.
“There’s a real mobility among the work force,” he said.
Employers will have to be creative with incentives to get people back into the work force, Van- Gorder said.
“Maybe a higher wage, flexible schedule or a mixture of in-person and remote work,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.”
‘ANYTHING WE CAN DO’
Catalfano has been trying many incentives to hire new employees with no success.
He offers a signing bonus, paying employees $50 who bring in another person who gets hired as an employee and free lunches, he said.
They can also make up to $22 an hour working at the restaurant.
“It just isn’t working,” he said.
The deli remained open throughout the pandemic but had to greatly cut hours and staff — from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Where he once employed 14 to 18 people, he now has five or six.
Catalfano said some of his employees were taking funds from unemployment insurance in place of working during the pandemic because they were concerned about working in a close-contact environment.
He was sympathetic to that explanation, but as the pandemic wore on and restrictions eased, workers weren’t returning his phone calls.
The store was able to remain open thanks to a core group of customers and more people have started coming back as they have felt more comfortable after getting vaccinated and restrictions have loosened, he said.
Still, Catalfano said he’s looking at other avenues — including jobs fairs and posting openings on Indeed, a jobs listing website. He will also try posting advertisements and getting the word out to people.
“Anything we can do,” he said.
THE PROBLEMS AROUND THE PROBLEM
The issue Cortland County employers face when trying to hire workers, and getting workers back into the labor force, is a microcosm of the same problems had across the country, said Ian Greer, the director of the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University.
For instance, Greer said, it is true that there are people not working as they are getting paid more from unemployment insurance than they were from their jobs.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed into law in March 2020, Americans could receive $600 of weekly unemployment benefits. That amount was lowered to $300 in July, renewed in December and is set to expire in September.
People may see these benefits as too generous, Greer said.
“The problem with that is it’s saying the benefit system should be less generous so workers take less-paying jobs,” he said. That could be a hindrance for parents or people with disabilities who need special care, which add to the cost of living.
Lack of important resources, such as child care, public transportation and broadband connection can force workers to stay out of the labor force. And in rural parts of the country like Cortland County, access to resources to overcome these barriers can be scarce, Greer said.
Overcoming these barriers will require more federal funding and national support for areas such as health care, broadband accessibility and public transportation, he said.
Additionally, employers will need to figure out more ways to prevent laying off people.
“We need to think about how to prevent unemployment along with preventing people from being laid off,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, Greer has conducted interviews with people who have become unemployed from Florida, North Carolina, New York and Massachusetts about their experiences being unemployed and accessing benefits.
Interviewees from Florida and North Carolina have had harder times accessing unemployment benefits because those states are more stringent with them while people from New York and Massachusetts have had less struggles getting benefits, he said.
Additionally, some of the people he’s interviewed have said they are desperate to get a job while others said they wouldn’t be able to work well due to disabilities that force them to stay home. Federal benefits have helped, he said, but as the benefits wind down, “that’s where we’re going to see the biggest differences.”
Greer said that states ending their unemployment benefits could result in more pain as it will either leave people who can’t work without any kind of income or force those who can into worse situations than if they didn’t work.
“If we take away unemployment benefits, we will just have the same problem in the future,” he said.