Workers seek fair salaries as the economy emerges from the pandemic

Written by on June 30, 2021

Workers seek fair salaries as the economy emerges from the pandemic

By Hayden Mitman

June 30, 2021

This May 5, 2021 photo shows hiring signs posted outside a gas station in Cranberry Township, Butler County, Pa. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week, reported Thursday, June 24, a sign that layoffs declined and the job market is improving. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Just under half a million people are unemployed in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. It’s a steep drop from this time last year as people are now getting back to work. 

Listen to the story.

Yet, there are business owners who say they still can’t find new employees. 

Pennsylvanians are looking for jobs, but want a fair wage. 

Steve Penovich, 57, of Pittsburgh says he’s been working steadily since he was 14. 

That is, until the pandemic hit.

“I am so bored right now that it’s beyond words,” he says.

Penovich built a career in office maintenance but COVID-19 changed how the world works. 

“Buildings were shut down. People weren’t going into the office. I had nothing to clean. I had nothing to fix. I had nothing,” he says.

Penovich has been on and off unemployment for more than a year and says it has kept his family afloat. 

“It was huge. A huge help. I take care of my elderly mother and I have a special needs child,” Penovich says.  

But right now, legislators in Harrisburg are negotiating a bill that would bring an early end to the emergency funds that have helped many like Penovich endure the pandemic. 

The State Representative who sponsored the bill, Jim Cox (R-Berks), has publicly stated he thinks the benefits encourage people not to work. 

But Penovich says that’s just not the case. 

“I want to get back to work again so bad that I am looking at taking a job that pays $15,000 less than what I was making,” Penovich says. 

And he’s not alone. In the Lehigh Valley, an area workforce board found 12,000 people are still claiming unemployment. 

But it’s a huge shift from last year when 53,000 people were out of work.

“People who are looking for jobs right now, they are finding jobs,” says Nancy Dischinat, executive director of the Workforce Board Lehigh Valley

But these aren’t always high paying careers. 

Dischinat says the extra unemployment funds may have kept some people on the sidelines. And businesses may need to increase salaries to a competitive rate.

“They are getting unemployment and they are getting that $300, so that’s why they are saying to you, partially, ‘well, pay more’ so, I’ve been saying to employers for a long time, ‘wake up buttercup,’” Dischinat says.

Economist Ahmed Rahman, an associate professor of economics at Lehigh University, agrees. He says government funds aren’t what’s keeping people from looking for work. 

“There is something to be said about people being hesitant for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the money being distributed and more about this sort of grand reset, that I like to say, that has happened with COVID,” he says.

The economy will look different as the world re-opens, Rahman says, and the past year has given people the chance to re-evaluate their careers. 

“Now people are kind of looking at what they were doing before, say the last couple of years and sort of saying, ‘alright is this the career path that I want?’ People in the household are kind of thinking about, alright, does it make sense that both of us work or one person works, or the number of hours. Should I keep making this massive commute that I was doing before?” Rahman says.

Steve Penovich from Pittsburgh says all he wants is a fair salary. He’s anxious to get back into the workforce. 

“I have no problem with doing the work. I’ll go back to cleaning tomorrow if I can get a job paying decent enough,“ Penovich says. 

With work requirements for unemployment set to resume July 18, Workforce Board Lehigh Valley says right now might be the time to look for a job since the marketplace might get flooded with prospective hires at the end of next month. 

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