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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

Why Many Ohioans Aren't Going Back to Their Pre-Pandemic Jobs

a photo of a fast food drive through in Columbus
Karen Kasler
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Fast food restaurants, like this one in Columbus, have been experiencing a shortage 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. And some businesses are actively advertising they’ll pay well over Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.80 an hour, along with signing bonuses. So why aren’t they finding workers? The answer may surprise you.

Brendan Joyce, Cleveland
Jo Ingles
Brendan Joyce, Cleveland

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 to go back to work in restaurants, I'm never going to back to work in the restaurant industry here," Joyce said. "And I think it’s disgusting and offensive that anyone would expect restaurant workers to, after the way that they’ve been treated for the last year. Also, the rudeness from customers and aggressiveness and offensiveness about wearing masks that I’ve heard from people I worked with 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 say 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 Labor Department data.

Ohio Chamber of Commerce President Steve Stivers
Jo Ingles
Ohio Chamber of Commerce President Steve Stivers


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. And some businesses nearby are saying they cannot 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.

Isabel Alvarado, Columbus
Jo Ingles
Isabel Alvarado, Columbus

“Part of the problem is we’re paying people to sit on the couch—$300 a week, plus the regular unemployment benefits. That’s the equivalent of a $45,000 a year job. That’s a problem," Stivers says.

But some workers say that’s simply not the case. Isabel Alvarado of Columbus says 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 says.

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

Rita Halleveld, Columbus
Jo Ingles
Rita Halleveld, Columbus


“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 of 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 says.


Halleveld has been able to get some pandemic unemployment assistance throughout the year. And she's 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.

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

Some workers tell me they 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.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.