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Ohio's Labor Shortage: Why Many Ohioans Aren't Going Back To Their Pre-Pandemic Jobs

 A fast food drive through in Columbus is closed due to a lack of workers.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio
A fast food drive through in Columbus is closed due to a lack of workers.

Ohio’s unemployment rate is 5%, just slightly higher than it was before the double-digit spike from the pandemic last year. “Help Wanted” and "Now Hiring” signs are common sights, especially at restaurants and retail stores. Some businesses are actively advertising they’ll pay well above Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.80, along with signing bonuses. So why aren’t they finding workers? The answer may surprise you.

Brendan Joyce worked in a Cleveland area restaurant before he was laid off last spring. He had to wait weeks to get unemployment for a variety of reasons. And now that he could go back to work at the restaurant, he’s not going to.

“I’m never going back to work in restaurants. And I think it’s disgusting and offensive that anyone would expect restaurant workers to after the way they’ve been treated for the last year. Also, the rudeness from customers and aggressiveness and defensiveness about wearing masks that I’ve heard from people on top of literally being exposed to a pandemic simply so people can get drunk or eat an expensive meal. It’s just…it’s deeply offensive," Joyce said.

Joyce is now attending a university, working to change his career.

Restaurants throughout Ohio said they are short staffed. So are retail stores. A record 649,000 retail workers quit in April, the largest number of resignations from retailers in more than two decades of U.S. Labor Department data.

Some businesses are paying well above minimum wage and even giving signing bonuses. Cedar Point and Kings Island are paying up to $20 an hour for some positions and cutting hours of operation because they can’t get enough workers. Some businesses nearby have said they can’t get workers because of high amusement park pay.

Many Republicans are blaming the $300 federal subsidy that’s been paid to unemployed Ohioans for holding back economic growth. So, Ohio is stopping those payments on Saturday. About half of the states are doing the same. Nearly all are led by Republicans. The federal program for the 25 states that will continue to participate expires on Labor Day.

The new leader of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Republican former Congressman Steve Stivers, thinks ending those benefits is the right choice.

“Part of the problem is we’re paying people to sit on the couch. Three hundred dollars a week, plus the regular unemployment benefits. That’s the equivalent of a $45,000 a year job. That’s a problem," Stivers said.

But some workers say that’s simply not the case. Isabel Alvarado of Columbus said she couldn’t go back to her job because she didn’t have childcare.

"I was working remotely and then the office requested me to return to work. But I couldn’t find daycare within the time frame they gave me so I basically lost my job," Alvarado said.

She’s not alone. When much of the state was shutting down last spring, Rita Halleveld’s daughter lost her slot at a Columbus area Montessori preschool.

“In order to meet the requirements for COVID precautions, they had to cut their early childhood program by 60%. And so they closed their toddler preschool and had fewer spaces open. And at that point, it was only going to be like academic year stuff anyway. So, I was already in a position to having to search for childcare for the summer in order to be able to continue working. When the fall hit, they still weren’t….they just didn’t have any spaces left," Halleveld said.

Halleveld has been able to get some pandemic unemployment assistance throughout the year. She just recently found childcare. But she’s a self-employed social worker so now she has to build her client base back up, and it might be tough for a while.

While the state says everyone who wants to get vaccinated can, more than half of the state’s population has not.

Some workers said are afraid of going back to work in close spaces without a mask mandate because they have health conditions that put them at greater risk if they should get COVID.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.