Bars crater and grocers boom, showing huge mismatch in U.S. jobs

Bri Hlava lost her bartending jobs when the Silver Dollar and the Pearl of Germantown in Louisville, Kentucky, shut down in the coronavirus pandemic. She had earned $600 a week.

Here's the tricky calculus for Hlava, a 27-year-old in the decimated hospitality industry. Should she apply for one of the jobs the pandemic is creating, or should she wait it out?

"I'm not above getting a job at a grocery store or something like that," she said, "but it's a little scary."

With millions of people being thrown out of work as much of the U.S. economy shuts down, the companies hiring are seeing a boost in interest. Some employers are speeding up interviews and paperwork to put people to work that same day.

But the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are opening up - at grocery stores, pharmacies and warehouses as well as health care or technology - aren't necessarily conveniently located for the newly unemployed. Some require specialized skills. Most are temporary, for low wages and the kind of work that isn't amenable to social distancing.

The open positions are "not going to be able to offset the vast majority of layoffs that we're seeing at small businesses," said Professor Paige Ouimet at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. "A lot of workers are not going to be able to take advantage of these opportunities."

For Matthew Celano the journey to being hired has been fraught. He was a server and prep-cook at a family-owned restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, until recently when the city mandated all nonessential establishments closed after declaring a state of emergency.

Celano, 51, said he tried an warehouse 45 minutes away in Miami but was told by the time paperwork and processing was done, he wouldn't be able to start for a month. He applied at a local Publix grocery store last week, for a job stocking shelves at night, and said he hasn't heard back.

If he lands the Publix gig, it likely won't pay what he had been pulling down - $900 a week during the high winter season.

The average retail sales job in the U.S. pays $11.33 an hour. Even with the $2 boost some chains are offering for a short time, that's only about $530 a week full-time. Many of the emergency postings are for part-time and only temporary employment.

Celano could possibly get more from unemployment benefits, which usually amount to about half of regular weekly income, plus the $600 per week added temporarily amid coronavirus. He would also be eligible for the $1,200 stimulus check.

The biggest issue for him is his elderly parents who he cares for and sees daily - he doesn't want a job that would expose them to the virus. But he also needs money for rent, gas, car insurance payments, and groceries.

"It's a Catch-22 - you don't really know what to do," Celano said.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surged to a record 3.3 million last week. That figure understates the impact of the coronavirus, because many part-time and lower-wage workers don't qualify for the benefits in certain states, and independent contractors and the self-employed don't either.

And there are many more expected to be laid off, with 80 million workers at risk and predictions that 3 million businesses could be bankrupt in the next three months.

Government data this week is set to show an additional 3.5 million workers tapping jobless benefits in the seven days ended March 28, according to a survey of economists by Bloomberg News. And the marquee monthly jobs report this Friday is forecast to show the biggest dip in payrolls since 2010.

Meanwhile, as many of 800,000 new jobs are being advertised by companies whose services are in high demand. They include Amazon, CVS and Domino's Pizza. Papa John's and discount grocer Aldi are also on the hunt for employees.

Some are getting creative, with grocery chain Albertsons hiring furloughed dining staff from BJ's Restaurants, which last week suspended its dividend and drew down its credit line. Meat warehouse Americold is scooping up the recently let-go from Great Wolf Lodge.

"There is this tremendous labor pool that is on furlough," said John Gordon, principal at restaurant consultant Pacific Management Consulting Group. "There will be employees that will use this opportunity to say 'I'm done with restaurants, I can't go through this again.'"

But people like Hlava, the Louisville bartender, are hesitant to apply for the new jobs for a number of reasons, including safety concerns. There have been virus-related protests at some of the employers that are hiring, including Amazon. A group of workers at a Staten Island fulfillment center walked off the job Monday to demand Amazon close the facility for extended cleaning, saying some of their colleagues there were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, said the companies hiring in the pandemic "have to implement measures to protect their staff because they're also at risk. What we're seeing is that's not happening in those sectors, or not to the extent that should be happening."

Hlava said she would like to hold out, in the hope that she can resume mixing drinks when the pandemic is over.

"This is not just a job for me, it's my career, it's my passion," she said. "I never really saw a future where the restaurant industry didn't exist. But does this drag on for six months? And what does the restaurant industry look like in a year from now? It's all a question mark."

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