Christopher Hertel of St. Paul has had a long and varied career in technology. He’s written software and set up data systems for everyone from insurance companies to the physics lab deep in the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota. But in January, Hertel was laid off. Right away, he got interest from a couple of companies, even got to a final round of interviews.
“The day that I interviewed with the person who would have been my manager was the day that corporate headquarters announced a hiring freeze because of the pandemic and uncertainty,” Hertel said.
The job market has undeniably changed since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Even sectors like tech, which are still posting some jobs, are bringing people on more slowly than they used to.
“The problem I think is not whether or not I’m hireable or whether the work is out there,” Hertel said. “A lot of these companies are trying to find out who and what they are in the face of all these changes.”
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 26 million unemployment claims have been filed in the last five weeks. But some employers, especially those on the front lines of supplying Americans with food and goods during the pandemic, are ramping up hiring despite the foreboding economic climate.
Essential workers in demand
Total job postings in mid-April nationally were down 34 percent over the previous year at the job site Indeed, according to Indeed economist AnnElizabeth Konkel. The situation in the Twin Cities was even worse than the national average, showing a 40 percent decline in job postings.
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The hits taken by restaurants, hotels and others in the hospitality industry are showing up in the job postings, leading to fewer postings for traditionally low-wage jobs, Konkel said.
“Overall there are less opportunities out there right now, but there are some employers who are still hiring, and the impact really differs by industry,” Konkel said.
In a job site run by the state of Minnesota, overall job postings are down over the year, said Mike Lang, director of employment services for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. But in recent weeks, the number of postings has started to recover in some sectors, even jumping 50 percent in total in the second week of April.
Job postings in the health care industry are among the most common, with demand for personal care aides, registered nurses and nursing assistants. Lang said other workers deemed essential, like grocery store clerks, internet installers and delivery drivers, are also in demand.
Incentives for dangerous work
In recent weeks, companies like Amazon and Walmart have announced plans to hire tens of thousands of workers.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company has hired 100,000 employees since mid-March, including 600 in Minnesota. The company plans to add an additional 75,000 jobs across the country and another 700 in Minnesota.
There are signs that some employers are trying to incentivize workers to take these jobs by offering “hazard pay.”
”Some employers who are needing to employ people who may be most at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 might increase their pay to compensate for that increased risk,” Lang said.
A spokesperson said that Amazon is hiring for a variety of roles, but that the positions start at a minimum pay of $17 an hour, a $2 increase since the pandemic began. The company said all full-time and some part-time employees get health benefits, paid time off and overtime pay.
Lang said he’s also hearing that companies are changing how they bring on employees to prevent COVID-19 from potentially spreading. Those changes can sometimes slow the hiring process.
Amazon also has shifted its recruiting efforts and orientations to virtual platforms.
Some Amazon employees across the country and in Minnesota have accused the company of retaliating against labor organizers for complaining about unsafe working conditions and a lack of protective equipment.
Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft said the allegations are unfounded.
“Safety is our top priority,” Crowcroft said. “We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on cleaning and sanitation, procuring safety supplies such as masks for employees, implementing temperature checks at our facilities, and ensuring all employees are adhering to safe distances in our buildings.”
Employers uncertain about unprecedented pandemic
Although some large employers have instituted hiring freezes, it doesn’t seem like most employers are panicking yet, said Edwin Koc, who directs research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which helps connect graduating people with entry-level professional jobs and internships. He said just 2 percent of employers affiliated with the group have said they’re revoking job offers.
”You compare it with the recession of 2008-2009,” Koc said. “Their response is not as visceral at this point as it was then.”
About two-thirds of their employers are adjusting internships for graduating seniors, including making them fully virtual, Koc said. While colleges are more pessimistic, Koc said, employers are still expecting to recruit as usual on campuses next academic year.
”I’ve actually been somewhat surprised by the relatively positive perspective out of employers,” Koc said.
Lang of DEED said comparing the economic climate now to the recession of the late 2000s or even the Great Depression is difficult because the current downturn is unprecedented. But there may be some glimmers of hope for employees as the economy adapts to whatever the new normal will be.
”While adjusting to this situation is stressful, it can be an opportunity to think about what’s next for us,” Lang said. “How can we take our experience, our background, and put it into these new opportunities?”