Maricela Gutierrez used to pick apples and cherries for two farm labor contractors before being laid off in April.
She has been looking for work ever since.
Gutierrez said she lost her job after crop growers began insisting that the contractors downsize their crews to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The risk of getting sick on the job is real. “Many of our co-workers had … COVID at some point,” she said.
Now, a crew that used to have 20 people might now only have 10 or five, she said.
Gutierrez says she is trying to get back on a crew, but space is tight. “Since a lot of people are in desperate need for work,” they are hanging on to their jobs, she said. A contractor told her she would only get a spot if someone left or got sick.
While data suggests that the job market in San Joaquin County is strong, some potential workers struggle to find jobs, some businesses say they cannot find staff, and others are opting to seek retraining and start new careers instead of re-entering their old industries.
Are unemployment benefits contributing to employers’ woes?
Mike Linker has run Victory Grill on Monte Diablo Avenue in Stockton for 10 years. The pandemic has represented “the most challenging and craziest year I’ve ever seen by far — not even close,” he said.
Linker said he thinks providing workers unemployment benefits amid the lockdowns was the right thing to do. “Our government on the state level — I feel like it was doing the right thing by putting everybody on unemployment,” he said.
But now, Linker is struggling to find part-time workers to support the catering work he and his four-person staff do. He said he believes for some people — not for all, he stressed — receiving unemployment could be a factor in not seeking work.
“Not for all, but for some, it was easier to stay home and collect unemployment,” Linker said.
The CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act expanded unemployment benefits and provided stimulus payments to certain groups during the pandemic. Lawmakers and others have argued that the additional benefits discourage people from looking for work.
At the WorkNet office in Lodi, requests for help accessing unemployment benefits are more common than requests for help finding work, Claudia Fuentes, a case manager at the center, said. WorkNet is a county program that helps develop the local labor force.
Fuentes said she believes this is because many find the unemployment process difficult to navigate.
Low-wage workers may decide not to return to work because the jobs they would return to do not pay enough to justify exposing themselves and their families to COVID-19, Fuentes said.
In California, a full-time worker making minimum wage at a workplace with more than 25 employees would make $560 per week before taxes. If that person lost their job, they could collect about $259 per week in unemployment, according to an unemployment calculator available on the California Employment Development Department’s website.
They could also collect an additional $300 in federal unemployment benefits provided through the American Rescue Plan, for a total of $559.
The impact federal benefits have had on the labor market may become clearer soon — they are set to expire on Sept. 6.
Industry shifts could be responsible for gap between employers, job seekers
The Northern San Joaquin Valley was the most resistant to job loss in the first six months of the pandemic compared to Northern California’s most populous regions, including the Bay Area, the North Bay, Sacramento and the Monterey area, according to a report from the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific.
This was especially surprising given that most job loss has occurred in low-paying occupations, and the Northern San Joaquin Valley has the lowest wages when compared to each area, the report said.
Despite a 12% drop in April 2020, San Joaquin County’s employment rate has recovered almost completely to its pre-lockdown level.
And by September 2020, the employment rate in the Northern San Joaquin Valley had recovered to 94% of its pre-pandemic level, the report said.
So if the local employment rate is relatively high, why are some businesses citing difficulty finding workers?
One reason could be outsize growth in the transportation industry, which may have offset job losses in other industries. By September 2020, jobs in the trade, transportation and utilities industry had increased by 3.5% from September 2019, the report said.
San Joaquin County has the second-highest concentration of transportation and warehousing jobs out of all metropolitan areas in the U.S.
Another reason is that the pandemic hit some industries harder than others: Leisure and hospitality industry jobs declined by 21.4% between September 2019 and 2020, the report said. The government, health care and education industries lost thousands of jobs, according to the report.
Some workers are changing careers
Lachelle Lopez is among the health care workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Lopez worked for the San Joaquin County Department of Aging and Community Services, providing in-home supportive services to an older adult with disabilities.
Like many who lost work during the pandemic, Lopez is not just looking to get her old job back – she’s looking to develop new skills and pursue a different career. She is considering studying to be a phlebotomist or an X-ray technician, she said.
The WorkNet office in Stockton helped her find a phlebotomy course and can connect job seekers to coursework for other careers too, she said.
“(Being a) care provider is something I always fall back on, but I would rather further my education a bit more,” Lopez said.
While still hoping for a call from a farm contractor looking for workers, Gutierrez is also interested in transitioning her career. She is seeking a position at California Human Development helping farmworkers and other low-income people, she said.
Record reporter Aaron Leathley covers business, housing, and land use. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @LeathleyAaron. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at recordnet.com/subscribenow.