It’s springtime in Kentucky. We just hosted the Derby with over 51,000 fans in attendance watching the best two minutes in sports. Anyone in Kentucky over the age of 16 can receive a vaccine and more than 40% have done so. Our COVID-19 positivity rate has been steadily hovering between 2-3%. Schools and childcare are back meeting in person at full capacity. Sports have resumed. Now is the time for Kentuckians to return to work and continue the economic momentum the commonwealth was experiencing before the pandemic.
Over the past year, because of the severity of the pandemic, Kentuckians who were unemployed and receiving unemployment insurance (UI) benefits were not required to look for work, which had previously always been a condition of receiving UI benefits. Though there was definitely a time for this provision, the economy is opening, jobs are back, and this time is now up. As of May 9, Governor Beshear has said everyone filing a UI claim will need to show they are actively looking for work.
And there is plenty of work to go around. Employers are desperate for workers. I’m sure you’ve seen multiple signs in your town from restaurants, health care facilities, retail — essentially every employer — saying they are hiring. According to NFIB’s monthly jobs report, a record-setting 42% of small business owners reported job openings they could not fill. On the Kentucky Chamber website alone, Who’s Hiring, there are almost 100,000 open positions from Kentucky employers. The lack of workers is preventing many restaurants and other businesses from being able to fully reopen. It’s also leading to price increases and could, we fear, even lead to business closures.
Many employers are offering incentives for sidelined workers to return to work. I recently saw a coupon from a restaurant offering a free meal if you filled out a job application. This shows the creativity, and frankly the desperation, of Kentucky employers.
Kentucky has had very strong health guidelines to keep employees and patrons safe-and they have worked and are continuing to work. Employers have adapted to ever changing health guidelines and are encouraging all employees to get vaccinated. Vaccines are truly the “shot in the arm” we need to keep our citizens safe and revive our economy. This is why it is a top priority of Kentucky businesses, many of whom are offering incentives for their employees to get vaccinated. With safety being a top priority of Kentucky employers, employees should feel confident and safe coming back in the workplace.
Even before the pandemic, Kentucky struggled with labor force participation. This number looks at those able-bodied adults who are actively participating in the workforce, or engaged in a job search. Before the pandemic, in February 2020, Kentucky’s labor force participation rate was 59.3%, ranking 44th in the country. As of March 2021, this number was 56.7%, ranking 48th. Kentucky has the 3rd lowest numbers in the nation, just behind West Virginia and Mississippi. Surely, we can do better.
Now that vaccinations are up, and cases are down, we must set our sights on recovering our economy in order to truly recover Kentucky from the pandemic. The long-term health and well-being of our citizens depend on it. To do this, our state needs to be able to attract new businesses and investors. This will not be possible if we do not have the workforce to meet these demands. It is clear looking at the data and reports from businesses in Kentucky, the reopening of the economy is outpacing our citizens returning to work, and the supply and demand are not in sync. Until this happens, business will not be able to fully reopen, and our economy will not be able to get back on track. We all want to go back to “normal.” A key part of getting there will be all of us returning back to work.
Ashli Watts is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.