With state unemployment at a record level – 17 percent, the Department of Labor and Training reported last Thursday – it would seem logical that staffing agencies would have a backlog of people looking for employment.
But things are upside down now, and some agencies are finding it difficult to fill the requests of companies desperate to find workers.
Will Roth, president of Rhode Island Staffing Association, has an idea why his company, Add Temps – which services light industry, filling jobs that pay minimum to about $20 an hour wages – is having more difficulty filling jobs now than when unemployment was at a low of 3.4 percent as recently as February.
It’s a matter of math. Workers who were paid $20 an hour or less can generally make more money with a combination of their unemployment benefits plus the $600 weekly federal supplement for the unemployed.
Angelika Pellegrino, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Training, said in a telephone interview Tuesday, “[Unemployment insurance outweighing wages is] definitely something we hear a lot about.”
She pointed out employers should report when they call employees back to work, and that at that point, DLT cuts off unemployment benefits.
Although workers may be telling employers they are fearful of returning to work because of possible exposure to COVID-19, Pellegrino said “being afraid” does not constitute a cause not to return to work. She referred to the DLT return to work sheet, which reads, “If your quit your job, or refuse work, you will not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits unless you have ‘good cause.’”
It goes on to say that good cause may include if the worker has been tested positive for COVID-19; if a doctor recommends that they don’t return because of high risk; or if the worker is the sole caregiver for someone who has no place to receive care (due to school/daycare closures) and cannot stay home alone.
Roth said he is looking to fill about 40 open positions with hourly pay ranging from minimum wage to $20. He related how one worker who had been laid off laughed at him and used profane language when he offered him a job that would have been paying what he had been making.
“In part I can’t blame them,” he said.
Meanwhile, he found companies that have never used an employment agency calling on him to find workers as they laid off employees when they scaled back operations and now are short handed. As an example, he cited a bakery that, in response to demand, is seeking to bring on a second and even a third shift.
In one case, he said, a laid-off worker sent a selfie to those still on the job showing him drinking a beer while watching a movie along with a note on how much he was collecting in unemployment.
Filling positions has been a time-consuming endeavor. Roth said it is taking him 10 times as long to fill one position than it took him prior to the pandemic, assuming he can find the job candidates.
He said he received six responses to a radio campaign costing $2,000 and only one of those followed up with an interview.
Roth said his experience is not unique and that the association and other trade organizations are lobbying against an extension of the $600 weekly unemployment supplement.
According to the 2017 Rhode Island staffing statistics found on the association website, 8,500 temporary jobs were filled weekly will a total annual employment of 41,200. The average annual earnings of a temp was $37,900 with a total of $280.2 million in sales.
As of last Friday, Pellegrino said 230,000 initial unemployment insurance claims had been filed with the department since mid-March and 157,000 had received a weekly payment. She said the average weekly payment is $385.
She said those out of work are required to certify what they had been paid, or not paid, the previous week in order to collect unemployment benefits. Pellegrino said the department continues to receive 1,000 calls a day and that at this point the effort is directed at processing claims. She sees that shifting as various sectors of the economy reopen and workers return to their jobs.
“Rhode Island needs those businesses to be open,” she said. “We are trying to help everyone. This is very stressful.”
Scott Seaback, president of RI Temps Inc., has also found the pandemic has changed his business. Generally, RI Temps works with employers seeking to fill higher paid positions including lawyers and accountants. The challenge, he explained, is making the match between a client and temporary employee given social distancing and the fact that many companies have their employees working from home.
“Meeting face-to-face, that’s the biggest problem people have,” he said.
Seaback said interviews as well as training are being done on Zoom.
Overall, his business is down and he is working to fill positions with about 40 customers now as compared to 100 prior to the governor’s stay-at-home order of March 15.
Asked about extension of the federal $600 weekly unemployment supplement, Seaback said, “I think it is needed. Employees are going to be hurting for a while.”