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Where are all the unemployed?

“There are 9.5 million unemployed people in the United States, so why can’t I find any employees who are willing to work for me?’’

This is the question the owner of my favorite bagel place asked me the other day when I stopped by for a bagel and cup of coffee.

I am feeling like a father confessor these days to these owners who are frantic to find employees to work, but despite trying ads in the newspaper, online posts, word-of-mouth and offering signing bonuses and other incentives they are still coming up short.

That is part one of the problem; part two is trying to keep employees once they are on board.

It seems as if every store I frequent has a “help wanted” sign. One that I saw recently in Tamaqua added “please, we are desperate.” It is quite the dilemma: At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed, business-owners have got plenty of jobs but few people willing to take them.

It has gotten so bad that some restaurants have cut their hours or decided not to open on some days. Owners are concerned that the pressures on the remaining workers who are carrying the extra load will lead to burnout or other health issues.

The unemployment rate in the United States is 5.9%, according to June figures. While this is still high by pre-COVID-19 standards, it is significantly lower than the more than 14% who were out of work a year ago at the height of the pandemic.

It’s a head-scratcher all right, and there is a lot of speculation as to why this is happening.

Of course, the federal $1,400 stimulus checks and the supplemental $300-a-month unemployment payments (which expire in September) are among the primary reasons given for why it is tough to find employees, some of whom say, “Why should I work when I am getting as much or more to stay unemployed for awhile, and I don’t have to risk getting COVID?”

Pennsylvania now requires that those unemployed must show that they are actively looking for work or the benefits could be cut off.

I wrote a column several months ago about the difficulty New Jersey shore owners were having getting seasonal workers to operate the rides and concessions at their boardwalks. This is not only problematic in shore communities, but anywhere you find these types of facilities.

The most famous of them locally – Dorney Park – curtailed hours and had to keep certain rides and amusements shuttered. Knoebel’s in Elysburg has been having problems getting enough help, so to try to entice new employees, its Web page offers this: “Who said a job has to be just that? Ride, Slide and Swim your way into the best summer job ever; oh yeah, and win a 2021 (Chevrolet) Trailblazer.”

The U.S. Labor Department shows job openings at a five-month high. The problem is that many of these openings are in industries that require in-person work, such as amusement parks, construction, delivery services or warehousing - exactly the types of jobs now being shunned by many Americans in the midst of a pandemic and a resurgence of a more virulent strain of the virus.

The firms that require in-person work have been diligent about making the workplace safe and have taken extraordinary sanitation steps. They also have been stressing employee respect, because they know that since prospective employees have so many options that any perceived slip-up or slight will result in their leaving one company for another where they will be welcomed with open arms. “If you have a pulse, you’re hired,” said the owner of a local packaging firm.

I spoke to the owners of several job placement firms, and they are beating the bushes trying to find candidates for the many available openings. One local firm has 2,200 openings it is trying to fill for desperate employers.

To try to put a dent into this demand, the company is offering a drawing to job-seekers, with the winner driving off in a 2021 Ford Mustang or pocketing $25,000.

Many companies have boosted starting salaries significantly. It is not unusual that a $12-an-hour job has been upped to $18-an-hour job now. Some are paying $12 and a $5-an-hour COVID bonus, with the expectation that once the pandemic is brought under control fully that the salary would return to $12 an hour. Most believe that this horse has left the barn. “Gone are the days of single-digit hourly wages,” predicted one job-placement executive.

There are incentives galore. In addition to sign-on monetary bonuses, some companies are offering electronics and other favored “toys.”

Those who are in the thick of this dilemma say there is no one answer as to why this disconnect between openings and hirings is happening. Many job-seekers are looking for remote work, but many of these jobs are not available right now. Several job placement firms reported that just 1 in 10 job postings is for remote work.

With the expectation that most schools will return to in-classroom instruction in the fall, this could ease part of the problem which affects stay-at-home parents, but even this is not clear, because some will choose remote learning for their children since most school districts will allow this option. For many workers, there’s an understandable fear of getting sick out in the workplace, then infecting kids or other family members at home.

The federal government also has begun six months of child-care payments, and employers fear that this might further disincentivize prospective employees from returning to work.

By BRUCE FRASSINELLI | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.