Harrison Lockhart could work as a clerk at a pharmacy or a supermarket. He could deliver for Domino's Pizza or troubleshoot customer calls for Charter Communications' Spectrum internet and cable service.
Several warehouses and local prepared meal factories would take him. But Lockhart, 30, who's unemployed from his bartender job at Tapped Bar & Grill in Middletown, is case in point for a New York labor market turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Jobs abound, but who's applying? In an ordinary economic downtown, a veritable army of out-of-work individuals – like thousands of jobless leisure and hospitality industry workers – would swiftly switch to urgently needed professions.
Instead, local labor experts, job seekers and business owners say many Empire State residents are staying on the employment sidelines. Their reasons include fear of catching the virus, financial stability from generous unemployment benefits, hopes they'll restart jobs again soon, and concerns that new positions will be phased out when the pandemic decelerates.
“You cannot assume past patterns, behaviors and solutions” in the pandemic-walloped labor market, said Laura Quigley, Sullivan County's Community Resources commissioner, who oversees the county's employment and training services.
For Lockhart, the calculus to remain unemployed was easy. He grossed less than $25,000 annually, while bartending 30 hours per week just before Gov. Andrew Cuomo's order shuttering non-essential businesses took effect March 22. (Cuomo's current order expires May 15, but the governor has said he'll extend it as needed to protect public health.)
Local labor experts, meanwhile, say many current mid-Hudson openings pay less than $20 an hour (often just $12 to $16), well below the $44,000 to $59,000 annually that the Economic Policy Institute estimates a typical Hudson Valley resident needs to survive.
Then there are New York's unemployment benefits. It's one of 44 states dispersing an extra $600 in weekly unemployment payments. The extra funds come from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package Congress passed in late March.
All told, the state Department of Labor had paid $2.2 billion in unemployment benefits to 1.1 million New Yorkers, between the coronavirus pandemic's escalation in mid-March and last Tuesday.
The result: Lower-wage jobless New Yorkers like Lockhart are often earning more from unemployment benefits than their previous jobs, giving them little incentive to apply for the glut of new low-wage positions.
“That level of unemployment benefits is exorbitant,” Lockhart said. But, “It's not of interest to me to keep the unemployment (payments). I'd much rather be bartending.”
Hope of returning to work soon is another reason some New Yorkers haven't re-entered the workforce.
“Human beings are not designed for this sort of crisis,” Lockhart said. “I know that social distancing is right, but it feels wrong in my soul.”
Costs and benefits of working
Given the circumstances, New Yorkers are making logical decisions not to give up unemployment benefits, said Stephen Knob, executive director of Orange County's Employment Training and Administration.
“People are saying, 'I'll take a cut in pay (with unemployment benefits), so I don't run the risk of coming in contact with people who might have the virus,'” Knob said. “Maybe people need to take care of their elderly parents or they wonder 'Will these jobs be there for me when people come back to work?' ”
Indeed, New York on Thursday had 269,756 reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, including 19,551 deaths. But testing has scarcely met state needs.
Cuomo this week estimated that up to 2.7 million New Yorkers may have caught the coronavirus, which could have a fatality rate as high as one in 200.
Then, there are the available jobs – positions such as cashiers, delivery drivers, shelf stockers, order fillers, equipment operators and warehouse associates. About a dozen large U.S. firms have been trying to hire almost 500,000 Americans since late March.
Among them are Amazon, CVS Health Corp. and a long list of grocery chains such as Price Chopper/Market 32, which began seeking more than 2,000 new part-time or temporary part-time workers in six Northeast states.
Grocery-delivery company Instacart Inc. said last month it would hire 27,000 workers in New York. Nationwide, Domino's Pizza Inc. set a goal of hiring more than 10,000, and Pizza Hut has been trying to bring aboard 30,000 full- and part-time workers.
Walmart just finished hiring 3,750 New Yorkers, part of a 150,000-employee nationwide hiring spree, and the company will soon seek another 50,000 workers across America, a spokesman said on Thursday.
Amazon, which is building a warehouse in Montgomery, hired 100,000 in recent weeks and announced plans on April 13 to create another 75,000 jobs.
Dollar General set a goal of hiring 50,000 workers by the end of this month, while the company's competitors, sister stores Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, have been seeking 25,000 full- and part-time employees for retail locations and distribution centers
Even before the pandemic, warehouses and light manufacturing facilities like food makers were growing employers for the state and the Hudson Valley, with its web of major roadways and proximity to New York City.
“There were some who said, 'Do we (in the Hudson Valley) really want these types of jobs in the area?' ” said Marc Baez, president and CEO of the Sullivan County Partnership, a local economic development agency. “But if these companies weren't here, we'd be in a much worse predicament” with the local economy.
Yet, not every business rendered essential by the pandemic is staffing up. Among many firms, the owners of smaller pharmacies, independent grocery stores and local medical providers face difficult financial and public health choices.
Essential businesses challenged
Brothers Randy and Butch Resnick co-own two small, independent grocery stores, multiple restaurants, a hotel, and several other businesses, including a metal fabrication plant in Sullivan County.
Nearly 200 of their roughly 250 employees are currently out of work, Randy Resnick said. More than 50 employees are still working at their grocery stores, the Liberty Market in Liberty and the Trading Post in Rock Hill.
But the Resnicks aren't hiring, despite the two stores' gangbusters sales. They're concerned about employees catching coronavirus from new hires.
And they're being cautious about expanding during a recession, temporarily halting plans to reopen Peters Market grocery store in Napanoch. The Resnicks simply made their grocery stores' part-timers into full-time staff.
“We just don't want to get anyone sick,” said Resnick, adding that he trusts his current employees to stay home when they're not working during the pandemic. “It's a concern that we discussed collectively among everybody.”
Illinois-based Medline, which operates a large warehouse in Wawayanda, is another labor-market outlier. America's largest privately-held distributor and maker of medical supplies seems like just the sort of business to be hiring during the pandemic.
But increased medical-supply demands from some hospitals and nursing homes are being offset by fewer supply orders from ambulatory surgical centers ordered closed by governors.
And physicians' offices need fewer supplies because they're relying much more on telemedicine, so Medline does not need to significantly ramp up staffing, a company spokeswoman said.
Indeed, some local health-care providers, including physician groups and hospitals, are not hiring beyond critical positions like doctors and nurses, though Quigley said nursing homes are commonly hiring positions like nurses' aides.
Local and nationally, health-care providers report a troubling triple-whammy. The pandemic is increasing costs, including for the personal protective gear and medical equipment.
At the same time, revenue is plummeting, from canceled surgeries to delayed elective procedures and patients becoming uninsured from lost jobs. Plus, insurers are reimbursing less for telemedicine compared with in-person patient visits.
Complicating matters, providers must maintain minimum staffing levels to meet demand, even as their medical personnel are especially at risk of becoming ill.
A spokesman for the Greater Hudson Valley Health System, parent to Orange and Catskill Regional Medical Centers and a large local physician practice, said the company is focusing on retaining staff and backfilling essential positions such as nurses and doctors.
Middletown Medical is among many local health-care providers facing revenue and staffing challenges, even as it leads local Covid-19 testing efforts with measures like converting a former dance studio into a testing site.
“Like most medical providers, we were on a 10-year trajectory to being 30 percent telemedicine, and we ended up being on a 10-day trajectory to being 80 percent telemedicine,” said Middletown Medical spokesman Dan DePew. “That's helped us with retention” because the practice is still generating revenue.
But, “If you're a medical practice, and your patient visits drop off 50 to 60 percent, and you don't jump into telemedicine, then you can't take care of patients, you have no income and you start laying off people,” DePew added.
Which medical providers will survive and thrive following the pandemic is an open question. Another one: When will more New Yorkers take jobs in a labor market turned upside down?
The answers likely depend on the length and intensity of both the pandemic and a recession that Oxford Economics projects could cost America 27.9 million jobs.
For the moment, Lockhart will keep collecting his unemployment benefits and holding out hope he'll work again soon at his Middletown bartender job.
“I don't think I know a single bartender working at Walmart,” he said.