NY has a worker shortage, but where did everyone go? Workers retool careers after COVID

Sarah Taddeo
New York State Team

As a child, Ciarah Richardson had a dream to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandmother, who ran her own sewing and embroidery business out of her Syracuse home. 

A global pandemic and a shakeup of the statewide workforce would help make that dream a reality for Richardson. She eventually resigned from her customer care job last year and opened an embroidery business, which she now operates out of a downtown Syracuse storefront.

The business allows Richardson a more flexible schedule to care for her young son and assuaged her public health concerns about working in a crowded space each week. She also works for as a contact tracer for New York state.

“It shook me up out of the blue,” said Richardson, 32, of Syracuse. “COVID-19 is a terrible pandemic, but it has done so many amazing things for people. I’m so glad I was pushed in this way.”

Richardson emerged from the initial COVID-19 shutdown with an evolved vision for her work life, childcare options and business aspirations.

Statistics show she is not alone in her sentiment.

Where are the workers? NY businesses struggle to find employees

More unemployment, fewer in NY labor force

New York's unemployment rate spiked to 16.2% in April 2020, with over a million New Yorkers collecting unemployment benefits after their workplaces cut workers or closed altogether.

The unemployment rate decreased to 7.1% by September 2021, but is still nearly double pre-pandemic unemployment levels.

Meanwhile, the total labor force decreased by about 200,000 people between February 2020 and September 2021, according to state Department of Labor data.

Ciarah Richardson, owner of All Things Plush in Syracuse, stands inside her small brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Syracuse. Richardson's embroidery business took off after she started making masks for people with a small sewing machine in her living room in the midst of the pandemic.

So what happened to the workers who didn't return to the workforce?

Over the past year, some parents left their jobs or scaled back their hours to stay home with their children amid childcare difficulties. Some workers didn’t feel comfortable returning to their previous workplaces due to COVID safety issues, while others voluntarily left jobs that mandated they get the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. 

The economic shakeup left the nation with a shortage of workers, particularly in industries such as food service, retail and healthcare, where workers were considered "essential" for much of the pandemic, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the Chicago-based auditing firm Grant Thornton.

“Consumer spending and businesses were attempting to ramp up faster than how workers were willing or able to come back to work,” Swonk said. 

“The reasons we know that workers weren’t as present included things you’d expect: Everything from childcare, mobility … retirement picked up a bit, but the biggest loss was people not coming back from retirement,” she said.

Over 4 million workers quit their jobs across the country in August alone, the highest single month of resignations on record since data collection started in December 2000.

In New York, the monthly quit rate went from 2.8% in August 2020 to 3.1% in August 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As a point of reference, the rate for the Northeast region, including New York and surrounding states, was 1.6% in August 2016.

More on the worker shortage:Where are all the workers? NY businesses struggle to find employees

Lack of bus drivers:New York announces plans to address school bus driver shortage. What would change

Not enough nannies, not enough childcare 

Sharleen Starks, 32, started her business Faces of Beauty Esthetics during COVID-19, after leaving her job as a lash artist at another local salon.

The pandemic created new hurdles for the labor market, but also made longstanding labor issues more acute. When the market turned in the employee’s favor after COVID’s peak, fields with historically low pay or demanding work schedules were left with few job candidates. 

During the worst of the pandemic in New York City, for example, wealthy families who typically employ nannies or housekeepers might have furloughed those workers if the parents were working from home, said Jaime Hochhauser, co-founder of Homefront Lifestyle Staffing, which places domestic professionals with families in the New York metro area. 

But now that many parents are back to their workplaces and kids are back to school in person, there aren’t enough nannies to go around, because those who are parents can’t find their own childcare, Hochhauser said.

Those who use daycares have found many have closed or are still keeping capacity low.

“They need to be able to get their kids to school. If they no longer have a parent who lives with them, or someone to pick up their kids, they can’t do these jobs anymore,” she said. 

Pre-COVID, Hochhauser’s roster of nannies, housekeepers and other workers was about 30 strong in each category; now, that’s down to 10 on a good day. 

Many workers returned to Hochhauser’s company looking for their employer to pay for health insurance, or pay them more per hour to cover the increase in the cost of living in the New York City area, Hochhauser said. Also, they're less likely to agree to long work weeks or a live-in position. 

“Families have had to learn to compromise,” Hochhauser said. 

Sharleen Starks, 32, started her business Faces of Beauty Esthetics during COVID-19, after leaving her job as a lash artist at another local salon.

Fields like school transportation are facing similar workforce issues nationwide.

Many long-term employees — often retirees looking for ways to keep busy or make extra money — decided the COVID risks or the strict regulations weren’t worth the minimal hours each week, said Dan DiClemente, president of BENTE AFSCME Local 2419, which represents non-teaching employees in the Rochester City School District, including those in food service, custodial and transportation. 

“A lot of the people who are retired said, ‘I don’t need to do this,’” DiClemente said. The Rochester City School District contracts with other companies for most of its busing but also employs its own drivers — the district itself is down 25 bus drivers now, he said, up from 13 vacancies at this time last year. 

The district had to pivot to a remote start to the 2021 school year after a driver shortage snarled plans to start school in person.

“This was a problem pre-COVID, but COVID just exacerbated the problem,” he said.

The district announced this week that it would to provide up to $3,000 in  recruitment incentives for prospective drivers, with the condition that they stay with the district for at least a year. The district said this week that it would like to hire 50 drivers.

More:RCSD approves $2,500 bus driver incentive and staff recruitment bonuses

More NY workers starting their own businesses

Jaime Hochhauser, co-founder of HomeFront Lifestyle Staffing in New York City, said it's extremely difficult to find nannies and housekeepers during COVID-19 because of childcare issues in their own families, among other factors.

The pandemic brought an abrupt break in the day-in, day-out routines of almost every New Yorker, especially those whose workplaces were deemed non-essential and were shuttered for at least two months, such as barber shops and salons. 

“Initially I couldn’t wait to get back to work,” said Sharleen Starks, 32, of Syracuse, who was in her third year as a lash artist at a local salon when COVID sent her and her coworkers home. 

But when they opened the salon again in June, customers were slow to come back, Starks said. That’s when she started thinking of taking her career in a new direction and starting her own business.

“When the pandemic took me out of my whole element, it put me in a space to think about my life and what I wanted,” she said. “I loved the place I was at, but the pandemic pushed me to do it for myself.”

Ciarah Richardson, owner of All Things Plush in Syracuse, stands inside her small brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Syracuse. Richardson's embroidery business took off after she started making masks for people with a small sewing machine in her living room in the midst of the pandemic.

She left her salon a year ago and started Faces of Beauty Esthetics, where she does lash extensions, lifts and tints, body waxing and henna.

It was surreal to make a career out of her love for embroidery and sewing, said Richardson of All Things Plush, and even more so to watch others be inspired to contribute to the economy in new and different ways during the pandemic.

"A lot of people look at this as being resilient, but you have to adapt to what’s going on around you," she said. "I see it as me just doing my passion....(but) a lot of people say I’ve inspired them to do this at this time. So it feels really good to be an inspiration." 

There is not enough proof to say that the pandemic touched off a “mass resignation,” said Grant Thornton’s Swonk, but it may have caused enough people to retool their careers to spur discernable shifts in the nation's economic fabric.

“There is some evidence that people have rethought what is important to them,” she said.

More:Paid Family Leave in NY: New law will allow employees to care for siblings. How it will work

Sarah Taddeo is an enterprise reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.