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Why Aren't More SWPA Residents Going Back To Work? Lack Of Child Care Tops The List

Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA

Child care and career changes are among the top reasons an estimated 14% of southwestern Pennsylvanians are neither working nor looking for work as the economy emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey.

About one-third of those who have exited the labor force said they did so because they have to manage child care or other responsibilities, according to a survey by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Eight percent of those surveyed say they are reassessing their careers, while an additional 8% reported wanting some time off.

Vera Krekanova, the conference's chief strategy and research officer, said the survey findings reflect the reality of COVID-19.

“People just simply had to stop working because [public] transportation was affected, because their job went away, or because [of] their children and parents and whoever they needed to take care of,” she said. “People were overwhelmed.”

In Pennsylvania, only about one-quarter of school districts have returned fully to in-person instruction, compared to 54% nationwide,according to data the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute compiled in partnership with the College Crisis Initiative of Davidson College. Just over 70% of Pennsylvania schools are operating on a hybrid basis, with less than 2% still completely remote.

While Republicans have blamed pandemic-era enhanced unemployment benefits for slowing job growth nationally, Krekanova said, “There's not a lot of clear evidence [of that] from businesses” in the Pittsburgh region.

Just 3% of survey respondents who left the workforce gave generous unemployment benefits as their reason. Another 4% said employers do not pay enough.

Krekanova said that while unemployment benefits probably play a role in some people's decision not to return to the workforce, "I don't think it's as big as people tend to believe."

The Allegheny Conference, which is affiliated with the pro-business Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, partnered with McCandless-based Schmidt Market Research to conduct the survey. Researchers gathered responses from nearly 450 southwestern Pennsylvania residents between May 24 and 26. The results, released Monday, are representative of the region’s working-age population, according to Andrew Fournaridis, a senior research manager at Schmidt.

Retirement accounted for the bulk of those who said they are not working or seeking work, although the survey did not gauge how many participants were forced to retire early due to the pandemic.

The labor force participation rate dropped sharply in Pennsylvania at the start of the pandemic. But it began to tick back up somewhat in February and remained at 61.7% in April. Such trends largely reflect patterns observed at the national level, Krekanova said.

While economists generally agree that child care challenges, continued concern about the virus, and other factors are holding back hiring, Krekanova acknowledged that some survey participants could be reluctant to admit that boosted unemployment payments are the primary reason they’re not looking for work.

Worker wariness lingers despite strong job market

Krekanova also noted that those who stopped working simply because they “want some time off” might not have been able to do so without the increased unemployment compensation. Working conditions in some of the region’s biggest industries are “very demanding,” she said.

“Hospitality, restaurants, social assistance, health care, construction, trucking, manufacturing — those are jobs that tend to have shifts and strict hours and a lot of responsibility, and not necessarily the greatest pay," Krekanova said.

It’s possible, she said, that people say, ‘I'm exhausted, I need some time off,’” she said. “But it might not necessarily be, ‘I don't want to work, and I'd rather be on unemployment.’ It's more, ‘I can't take it anymore.’”

Remote work options may have improved the experience of many employees, however. Just 4 of 10 respondents said they prefer to work in person.

Women and millennials expressed the strongest preference for remote work. More than half of women say they prefer to work from home, compared to about 40% of men.

Seven percent of survey respondents, meanwhile, said they are unemployed, meaning they’re searching for a job. In April, the region’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 7.4%.

While factors related to COVID-19 have kept some from seeking work, Monday’s survey shows that southwestern Pennsylvanians feel increasingly optimistic about their job prospects. In fact, the survey found that, with 42% of respondents feeling positive when it comes to jobs, “employment confidence” had tripled since December.

But while that metric has seen steady growth over the last three months, Krekanova cautioned that it has yet to rebound fully: When the pandemic first took hold in March 2020, it stood at 49%.

“It's still very fragile,” Krekanova said of the increased optimism. On measures such as consumer and employment confidence, “We're really looking for a majority” of people to report a positive outlook, she said.

But given that “the job market is strong,” she added that she expects employment confidence will continue to improve “as people continue to cope with the pandemic in the long term and hopefully [find] new levels of stability personally and with their families and social networks.”

Consumer confidence ‘stabilizing’

The survey shows that overall consumer confidence in the region has increased three-fold since mid-January — also reaching its highest level since the very beginning of the pandemic.

But with just 4 in 10 respondents reporting confidence in the regional economy, Krekanova noted, “there's still 60 percent of people that are not feeling optimistic about the economy. … So we would like to see the numbers completely reversed.”

Just over one-third of residents are optimistic about business conditions and the national economy, according to the survey. Close to 60%, however, feel positively about their personal finances.

Krekanova said anxiety caused by the pandemic, including the potential for new strains of the virus, could explain continued uneasiness about the economy for some people. But she said, the collective mood is “evolving positively” as vaccinations spread, federal COVID-19 relief strengthens the social safety net, and summer weather lifts people’s spirits.

“Things are definitely improving," Krekanova said. "Things are definitely stabilizing for people.”