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Unemployment remains critical on South Shore

Recovery far less robust than predicted

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With the expiration of the weekly federal pandemic unemployment benefit on July 31, and legislation to renew the program stalled in Congress, many in Nassau County may need to tighten their belts another notch or two as the unemployment rolls continue to grow.

And despite New York state’s Phase 4 provisions for reopening now in effect in both Seaford and Wantagh, businesses have not bounced back to the extent hoped for. Many, like restaurants and entertainment venues, have limitations due to social distancing guidelines that constrain their ability to return to pre-Covid prosperity, and some, like bowling alleys, are prevented from reopening at all.

Like much of the county, Seaford and Wantagh are heavily dependent on service jobs in areas like health care, hospitality and retail — three sectors that have accounted for nearly 200,000 lost jobs in Nassau and Suffolk counties since the lockdown began in mid-March, according to a report issued last month by County Executives Laura Curran and Steve Bellone.

The official unemployment rate in Nassau and Suffolk counties jumped from 3.4 percent in February to 12.9 percent in June, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which aggregates the two counties. The picture is likely bleaker, however, since the official rate is based only on initial unemployment claims — the so-called U1 rate — and fails to capture the long-term unemployed or workers who are no longer seeking jobs. It also fails to account for those who are “under-earning” relative to their experience, qualifications and financial obligations.

Some employers have complained of difficulties in restaffing, calling the $600-per-week pandemic bonus over-generous. In a webinar hosted by Seaford Democratic State Sen. John Brooks two weeks ago, one attendee asked if Brooks was aware of any move to end the benefit, saying it was an obstacle to finding qualified employees, because workers could make more by collecting a combination of unemployment plus the pandemic bonus than by taking jobs.

“That may be true in some parts of the country,” said Uri Barasch, president of the U.S. division of Adia Works, a staffing agency specializing in temporary positions like blue-collar, data entry and skilled trades. But in the Northeast, where the cost of living is high, even if workers receive maximum benefits, including the pandemic bonus, the total is still less than a living wage would be, Barasch said.

Because it is a federal program, state and local officials have relatively little influence on its continuation or cancellation, but Brooks emphasized the critical role the federal government will need to play in any recovery.

New York’s state Constitution prohibits deficit spending, he said. “The scale of the crisis is beyond what we can do as a state,” he added. “Without help from the federal government, we don’t really know what kind of programs we can put together.”

Getting people back to work safely was a critical first step toward economic recovery, Brooks said, and the experience of the past four months showed that working from home could be a viable model for many more workers than had been considered possible or desirable before the pandemic.

It could help with staffing issues in jobs like lower-level technology or office work, Barasch said, because “fear of the virus is at least as big a factor in keeping people from taking jobs” as the pandemic bonus. “They want to stay home. They’re afraid the working conditions may be unsafe in places where they’re exposed to a lot of people.”

In New York, the maximum unemployment benefit is $504 per week. Even when combined with the pandemic payment, it would still be less than the average county salary of $61,000, according to the Curran/Bellone report, and far less than Nassau’s $108,000 median salary — and both benefits are subject to federal and state income tax.

In addition, the bonus was only funded for 14 weeks Barasch pointed out. “Even if it gets renewed, it’s not a long-term solution,” he said.

Sixty-eight percent of local job losses were for positions paying less than the county average, according to the Curran/Bellone report.

A survey of job openings on indeed.com for the week ending Aug. 1 showed that of the 41,000 non-farming jobs advertised within a 25-mile radius of Seaford and Wantagh, only 4.4 percent paid at least $60,000 a year; 28 percent paid $40,000 or less; and 43 percent paid no more than $30,000.