Sunday Business Page: Employment One Year Into The Coronavirus Pandemic

KDKA's Jon Delano spoke with Chris Briem of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research about where we stand with employment more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

- This is "The Sunday Business Page" with Jon Delano.

JON DELANO: Good morning, I'm Jon Delano. Welcome to another home edition of "The Sunday Business Page." And our very special guest today is Chris Briem, who's a Regional Economist with the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

And Chris, you're always the guy I turn to when I need demographic information about things happening in this region. Thank you so much for being with me today.

CHRIS BRIEM: Good to be here.

JON DELANO: So let me ask you right off the bat, the job situation. We lost a lot of jobs during this pandemic. Over 200,000. Where do things stand today as we commemorate-- no one celebrates-- but we acknowledge the year long anniversary of this pandemic?

CHRIS BRIEM: So a lot of the jobs have come back. Now, they all came back really early last year, by the middle of the summer and into the fall. It's been pretty flat since the fall.

The challenge really has been that the regional labor force has not come back. So a lot of the jobs have come back, but we really had a tremendous contraction in the size of the labor force. The number of people working or looking for work has not come back at all.

JON DELANO: So what we mean by that is the jobs are here in Pittsburgh, but they're going vacant because we don't have enough people applying to do that work? So what's going on? Are people just leaving the workforce?

CHRIS BRIEM: I think the pandemic has been a perfect storm of many things. I'm pretty sure there are early retirements of folks who may have been planning on leaving the labor force. There are people who have left the region.

A lot of our labor force are students. A lot of those are not here physically or are not working as they normally are. And then nationally and here there's been this tremendous challenge of child care or even senior care. People who are forced to take care of folks at home and also balance work. They've clearly sort of had to leave the labor force if temporarily, and hopefully not permanently.

JON DELANO: Yes, I saw one statistic, Chris, that 80% of those who left the workforce according to McKinsey and Company were women. And a lot of them-- I mean, they were forced to do so. Or they chose to do so versus their spouses or their partners for child care when the schools shut down and essentially, kids had to learn from home. Are those individuals going to get back to work?

CHRIS BRIEM: And that's a big question. I'm not sure we really know. I think some folks certainly will when the infrastructure, the schools reopen. Or other care issues, infrastructure reopens. Hopefully a lot of them will come back. But some folks may have shifted their plans, their family plans, and may remain working at home.

I mean, that's one part of this. And I don't think there's one answer yet. But that'll be the big challenge for the region and the nation going forward.

JON DELANO: The other issue that I understand is that we-- still many of these employers that want to hire are paying below living wage. They're paying less than $15 an hour. And the fact is that with unemployment comp and the benefits through the pandemic, individuals don't need to give up their government assistance in order to work at a sub-living wage job. Is that part of the explanation as well?

CHRIS BRIEM: I think-- the research thus far is that the pandemic benefits have not depressed the labor force. I think the shock of the COVID is the impact. The focused impact on certain industries is the impact. Those pandemic benefits will end some point. I'm pretty sure that these labor force issues will continue.

And a lot of employers that have been used to filling their jobs with sort of relatively low wages here in Pittsburgh, sort of a historical thing, may not be the case going forward. And they may need to be forced to pay more nationally competitive wages.

JON DELANO: Finally Chris, are you optimistic about Pittsburgh's economy going forward? Will we have enough workers for the jobs of the future?

CHRIS BRIEM: Well, I think we-- I think the economy-- I think we will, but I think it'll take a great challenge. I think recruiting workers is going to be more difficult in the future, because these issues are across the country. So it's not just sort of-- they're going to have opportunities elsewhere as well.

So it's going to be a challenge. It'll take a lot of work and a lot of shifting by a lot of employers, especially on the wages.

JON DELANO: Well, Chris Briem with the University of Pittsburgh. Thank you so much for being with me today. I really do appreciate that very much. And thank you for watching us on "The Sunday Business Page." If you have a suggestion for our guests, get in touch with me at jdelano@kdka.com. Have a great Sunday, everybody.