Apr. 2—Annie Mendez shifted from restauranteur to store owner during the pandemic.
Fifteen days before Christmas, Mendez dropped plans to revive her restaurant and instead opened House of Envy to sell women’s clothes in the Laurel Mall near Hazleton.
“During COVID people aren’t coming out. Money is tight. We are working against all the odds,” said Mendez, who nevertheless believes her new store can grow as the pandemic wanes.
Like Mendez, people who were unemployed during the past year had to make decisions about what is best for their future. Some took new jobs or went back to school. A few retired early. Others stretched unemployment benefits until they could return to their old jobs.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, unemployment jumped to 18.4% in April at the start of the pandemic, but many returned to work since then.
By December, the jobless rate for the area that includes Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton fell to 7.6%, which was within 2 points of the previous year.
Still the number of unemployed people was higher by 17,507 in December than in February last year.
“That is a huge number for our region,” Satyajit Gosh, economics professor at the University of Scranton, said.
Unemployment might dip further when more people are vaccinated against COVID-19 and feel confident about mingling at banquets, concerts and gyms again.
Businesses that draw crowds — arts, recreation, entertainment, accommodations and food service — are among the industries still slumping.
After a year of home confinement, people are eager to return to stores, schools and theaters, which will help those businesses rebound.
But Ghosh said national reports show some jobs disappeared permanently.
Consumers grew accustomed to online orders, curbside pickups and streaming movies at home. They will keep using those services.
“Maybe at least once a week because you found these are pretty convenient,” Ghosh said.
Ghosh plans to return to the classroom after teaching remotely during the pandemic, but other workers will continue working from home when COVID-19 fades. The change will reduce employment in professional firms such as accounting and financial service companies and among workers who clean offices.
Layoffs and job eliminations fall more commonly on workers who have lower incomes, fewer skills and are Black or Hispanic.
“The recession has increased the inequality that we all knew existed in our society,” Ghosh said.
He advises governments at all levels to help workers retrain fast or else “folks will be out of the labor market for a long time.”
To help restaurants and other small businesses, the Biden administration gave firms with fewer than 20 employees two weeks to apply before opening the latest round of paycheck protection grants to larger companies. Pennsylvania in March cut loose $145 million for grants to hospitality companies.
Federal proposals include extending supplemental unemployment benefits, which early in the pandemic increased checks by $600 and more recently by $300 a week.
Some workers are investing unemployment payments in training for their next jobs.
“Sometimes, they can’t return or don’t want to return. … They’re looking to do something different,” Susan Spry of Luzerne County Community College said.
At the college, where Spry is vice president of academic affairs, the most popular program trains people for a commercial driver’s license. Getting a license takes about a month, and companies recruit graduates heavily, Spry said.
Spry said during the pandemic more students enrolled part time, suggesting to her that they are still working but want to improve their prospects.
Registered nursing is among the three most popular majors at LCCC, along with business management and human services. Students who take shorter training programs also aim at healthcare jobs such as pharmacy technician, phlebotomist, EKG technician and certified nursing assistant.
Healthcare was a major employer before the pandemic, during which medical workers risked their health while caring for others.
Although hospitals lost money at the start of the pandemic, early retirements add to a shortage of workers that existed before COVID-19 arrived, Rachel Moore, spokesperson for Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said by email.
Lackawanna College started an associate’s degree program in nursing last year and filled every slot, despite the pandemic, spokesperson Heather Gogas said.
This year, Lackawanna will start training medical assistants for whom job openings are expected to increase 19% to 29% through the end of the decade, which is much faster than the average of all jobs, said Gogas, citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gogas said students also opt for shorter programs in sonography, surgical technology and to become assistants in occupational or physical therapy.
In February, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed apprenticeships to train workers in new fields, including healthcare. Taking a cue, Hazleton Area Partners in Education and Lehigh Valley Health Network are developing a curriculum together.
“It’s meant to meet the specific needs of Hazleton Area and start building a pipeline, beginning in middle school,” Cathy Colangelo of Partners in Education said.
In Hazleton Area School District, Career Center Principal Lori Herman wants to continue a diesel mechanics course that needs a new teacher and start a course for forklift operators.
Those courses could point high school students toward jobs in a growing industry.
An Amazon distribution center is the No. 1 employer in the Hazleton Area, followed by the schools themselves and Lehigh Valley Health. In addition, developers want to build 19 warehouses within the school district.
Warehouses like one in Archbald from which Chewy started shipping pet food in the fall are automating. That reduces spread of disease and labor costs but increases skill requirements. Instead of driving forklifts, future warehouse workers might repair robot drivers.
New warehouses open as more people shop online.
E-sales rose before the pandemic, which accelerated the trend by perhaps five years, Greg Fox said.
Fox is chief executive officer of Best Cigar Prices, which sells through its website.
To complement online sales, Best Cigar opened a retail store at its distribution center in Butler Twp. in 2018. A pub and cigar bar opened just three months before the pandemic struck.
“We’re kind of diversified on both sides of the pandemic, the part that it hit economically and the part that it boosted,” Fox said. “If we were just in the restaurant business, we may have a ‘closed’ sign up.”
Mendez did close her restaurant, Papaya Queen, before the pandemic began because her landlord boarded up the former Hotel Altamont in Hazleton where she rented space.
While Mendez looked for a place to reopen Papaya Queen, a lunch spot known for fruit smoothies, COVID-19 dampened restaurant prospects but also made her restless.
“I can’t stay home and do nothing,” she recalled thinking.
Her choice to open House of Envy instead of a restaurant wasn’t a whim. She has owned a store of the same name for more than a decade in the Dominican Republic and wants to bring new styles to Hazleton.
Women going out to dinner in town, she said, don’t want to see other diners wear the same outfit.
“I think we are going to do very good when things get back to normal,” Mendez said.
For now she is building her brand and “offering the best customer service possible” while thinking beyond her store’s walls, as many retailers are doing.
Mendez is creating a website, but to keep the store exclusive, she will sell different clothes online.
She also intends to open popup stores at sites like Hometown Farmers Market.
“The business is not just one store, the one establishment,” Mendez said. “Why wouldn’t you want to use all the venues you can to push your store?”
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