When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the job losses were stark.
As offices awaited guidance and businesses in sectors such as the hospitality were forced to close the state lost 292,400 jobs in March and April 2020, according to the Connecticut Department of Labor. Numbers indicate that while there was a hiccup in the recovery from November to February, the state has since recovered 196,400 of those lost jobs. Now even 17 months the state is still working on job recovery as employment remains less than pre-pandemic levels in all sectors.
In an Aug. 27 press release from the Connecticut Department of Labor, the organization announced that certain unemployment benefits are ending, with the CARES Act ending Sept. 4 and High Extended Benefits ending Sept. 11. In the announcement, interim Commissioner Danté Bartolomeo was confident about how people were re-entering the workforce.
“There are thousands of jobs being added weekly, so it’s a very good time for people to find that great new job—or even launch a new career,” Bartolomeo said in the release.
With hope more jobs will be filled, Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said there’s still anxiety impacting how people are returning to the workforce, and concerns from businesses about the delta variant. Sheridan is hopeful about the situation. While there’s still concerns in certain sectors, like hotels and restaurants, Sheridan is seeing a recovery in other areas in eastern Connecticut, like tourism in Mystic, and real estate region-wide.
“I’m seeing all the positive signs of (recovery)” Sheridan said. “The great unknown is the virus.”
In the casino and hospitality business, Jeff Hamilton, president and CEO of Mohegan Sun, said the casino and related businesses are currently a few hundred short of their prior numbers. Mohegan Sun had been short of ideal employment numbers before the pandemic, but Hamilton said jobs were easier to fill back then. Now, Mohegan Sun is offering hiring and referral bonuses to get people working again.
“We were able to staff up rather quickly if we lost people, but at this point, we’re struggling to fill most any open position we have,” Hamilton said.
Ray Alberts of These Guys’ Brewing Company in Norwich also said it’s been hard getting new hires, as the brewpub is trying to fill a cook and two server positions.
“People no-show to interviews, or they call up and say ‘I got another job,’ which is good,” Alberts said.
During the worst of the pandemic, Alberts said the businesses dropped down to four employees from 24. Right now, Alberts said he currently has 18-21 employees.
Angela Adams, the executive director of the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce (GNACC) said that businesses never had to offer incentives for employment like they are doing now, and are willing to hire people who aren’t qualified but can be trained for the job.
“Businesses just want people that are reliable, that want to work, and are ready to get going,” Adams said.
To do their part to encourage people to get back in the workforce, GNACC is partnering with community organizations to hold job fairs, along with a yearly manufacturing expo to get students interested in manufacturing careers.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do and to let people know what businesses in the local area are hiring,” Adams said.
For job recovery, Sheridan said he’s unsure how long the actual job recovery will take. He understands there are people who needed to use the extra benefits to weather the pandemic, but emphasized a social service program isn’t the same as having a job.
“Most people want to feel productive and that they’re contributing to society,” Sheridan said.
Hamilton said the difficulties range from the extra unemployment benefits to childcare needs, as schools still had remote learning at least part of the time. Hamilton said it’s good that students are returning to in-person learning and people may now be more motivated to find work, “as anyone that wants a job can get one right now.”
“The hope is that the employment base improves, but that has yet to be seen,” Hamilton said.
However, state Sen. Cathy Osten said the extended benefits haven’t been a problem. Rather, Osten said the jobs numbers are reflective of people switching careers or who are still nervous from COVID.
The former has impacted United Community and Family Services (UCFS). President and CEO Jennifer Granger said the job market is cyclical in healthcare. While UCFS was able to keep people employed through the first year of the pandemic, people have left during the spring and early summer in search of other job opportunities. So far, UCFS has had success with replacing medical and psychiatric positions. Granger said the organization is still looking to fill behavioral health clinician positions, though student interns are helpful for filling the positions.
“We are making progress in recruiting, but that turnover that was non-existent for 12 months has started up again,” Granger said.
Osten doesn’t believe there will be dramatic increases from the benefits going away, rather it will be steady growth. She also hopes for more profits, and therefore job recovery in the contractors that work for Electric Boat, like Collins & Jewell, or for the ones that work for Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, like A.C. Linen.
Other businesses have been more stable. Jason Bugbee, a co-owner of The Nutmeg Companies, a general contractor based in Norwich, said they were fortunate enough to get multiple projects to keep people employed through the worst of the pandemic.
“Through COVID, we actually increased my workforce by a little bit, so we were fortunate for that,” Bugbee said.
Despite the current situation, Alberts expects to fill These Guys’ vacant positions soon. He added that the business has loyal customers, and will be able to support employees now, and hire more once the Church Street move happens.
“It makes a difference when the owners are here and working,” Alberts said.