Childcare, lingering pandemic concerns keeping workers from the workforce, experts say

Posted at 5:15 PM, Dec 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-30 18:28:46-05

CLEVELAND — Across the country it’s estimated there is more than one job open for every American who wants to work, yet still there are millions of people who have yet to return to the workforce.

Why? It’s a question not easily answered, though the White House, Congress and economists are struggling to try.

In January of 2020, the U.S. economy was on a roll. Unemployment was low, wages were rising and inflation in check. That’s when things went south as the pandemic began its impact in February and march. The nation’s economic leaders immediately looked to assure Americans.

“Let me just comment — this isn’t like the financial crisis,” said former U.S Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on March 13, 2020, referring to the financial crisis of 2008, the banking collapse that led to the great recession of 2009, when unemployment soared and people waited in lines for a shot at any job.

Like in Canton in March of 2009, when more than 200 people showed up for 24 call center jobs that paid $10 an hour. Or when a $15 an hour afternoon janitor’s job opened up and one local school district got 500 applicants in just three days.

This crisis has produced the exact opposite.

“There are about 10 million jobs open today and I believe there are about 8 million people who are out of work,” said Ohio’s outgoing U.S. senator, Rob Portman.

The big difference, economists say, was that unlike 2009, the economy in 2020 was sound when the pandemic hit, and while Washington may have done too little back then, they weren’t making that mistake again.

“We’ve just had much, much, much more fiscal stimulus as well as monetary stimulus this time around,” said Bill Adams, senior international economist with PNC Financial Services. “And so with that impetus for the economic recovery to move faster, that has caused the labor market to tighten faster than workers have been coming back in — and so night and day versus what we saw the last time around.”

It was thought that when monetary benefits, like extended unemployment, ended this summer and fall, those workers would come back. One issue that all point to for that not happening is childcare.

“The number of childcare workers in the United States is down by over 10% relative to the pre-pandemic period versus the number of overall people down by less than 3%, so that is really holding back the ability of working parents to get back in the labor force,” Adams said.

Another issue all point to is the genuine health concern that the pandemic still carries, especially for those who were in low-paying jobs. That’s true especially with older workers who were the biggest source of growth in the U.S. workforce prior to the pandemic.

“I mean, you go to a job where you are actually with the public and you go home every night anxious about possibly passing this virus, still deadly for thousands of people…you may pass this on to your family,” said Ohio’s other U.S. senator, Sherrod Brown.

Still, Adams said all signs point to inflation peaking in the next few months, the supply chain crisis easing in the first months of the new year and many of those workers returning, though many in new fields.

“We expect another year of rapid recovery in 2022,” Adams said. “We think that overall employment is likely to get back to the pre-pandemic level by the middle of next year.”

Adams is optimistic at next year’s prospects not just at the macro level, but for businesses and workers as well.

“So it looks like we’re going to see another year of strong growth in 202, and it should be good for workers — higher wages — and also for businesses,” he said.

The wildcard, as it has been throughout this pandemic, though, is the pandemic itself.

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