A Time of Opportunity: Labor Day 2021


Contributing Writer
Joni Blackman

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” Is attributed to Confucius.

Labor Day, celebrated on the first Monday of September, is not only the annual celebration of workers and their achievements, but also the official end of summer. Labor Day or the “workingman’s holiday” originated in the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. At that time, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks earning a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as five or six worked in mills, factories and mines, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

Manufacturing increasingly replaced farm work as the mainstay of American employment. Labor unions gained prominence and were more vocal for their workers. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and force employers to renegotiate hours and pay. In New York City on September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

By 1894, 28 states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday.
The American Worker

American labor has raised the nation’s standard of living and contributed to the greatest production levels the world has ever known. The labor movement has brought us closer our long-held ideals of economic and political equality. It is right that we honor the American worker on Labor Day. From the beginning, workers have brought our nation strength, freedom and guidance.

Opportunities Abound

Now is the time to find the job you want. We have all seen the “Now Hiring” signs in business windows. It is a job seeker’s market. It is the same across the country, not just in rural western N.Y. Prior to the pandemic there was a workforce shortage, and now it’s even more so. Over the past 18 months many frontline employees found new career paths leaving restaurants, grocery stores and healthcare facilities understaffed. Employers are increasing minimum wage levels and adding benefits to positions that were straight hourly pay in the past.

Prudential, the large global financial services giant, conducted a survey of workers, and the results are astounding. “Some 48% of Americans are rethinking the type of job they want post-pandemic.” According to the research, “53% say they’d switch to an entirely new industry if they could retrain.” Prudential’s latest Pulse of the American Worker survey found that 25% of workers “plan to look for a new job post-pandemic” and “compensation, work-life balance and lack of growth opportunities are top priorities.”

Local Snapshot

The New York State Department of Labor rate of unemployment (not seasonably adjusted) for Chautauqua County for July 2021 was 5.9%, Cattaraugus County was 5.7% and Warren County, PA for May 2019 was 6.1%. Prior to the pandemic, the July 2019 rates were 4.3%, 4.6% and 4.8% respectively. One can see the rates are not very different from prior to the start of the pandemic. But it seems much has changed.

According to Katie Geise, Executive Director of Chautauqua Workforce Investment Board, Inc., “anyone who is actively looking will find a job. Many are looking. We reopened the Jamestown Chautauqua Works office for walk-ins and one-on-one appointments. We are requiring masks.” According to the Chautauqua Works website which links to the New York State Job Bank, there are over 500 jobs available in Jamestown. When asked about why there are still so many openings, she said, “people are concerned about the impact working outside the home will have on their families and their own health. The pandemic is still happening. Childcare, especially for young children, is very uncertain. Parents have many issues to weigh.”

This summer the Workforce Investment Board’s Summer Youth Employment Program put 130 youth in the job market to teach employment skills. There were 200 applications. Young people want to work.

One way the Workforce Investment Board is helping prospective employees take control of their job interviews is by instructing them how to ask about the employer’s safety protocol. They should ask about cleaning, masking, social distancing and the workstation or area safety practices. The answers reflect the businesses’ concern for their employees and may help ease a prospective workers mind.

Locally there are many openings across all industry sectors; healthcare, manufacturing, education, finance, and retail. In the past few months, we have all undoubtedly experienced waiting for service at a restaurant. It isn’t because they are inefficient, it’s because they are understaffed. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are advertising large sign-on bonuses and across the nation schools are looking for bus drivers. To remain open, businesses that have never struggled for workers before, are having to adjust their hiring packages, work schedules and job descriptions.

Kurt Johnson, owner of Shawbucks restaurant said, “I feel blessed. We opened in June. Most of my staff returned. I have a great appreciation for their dedication and hard work. They could work anywhere. They came back. We are a tight team. We could use a couple more employees just in case someone is not able to work.” Shawbucks is open for dinners Tuesday through Saturday at 4 PM.

Necessity Breeds Innovation

This is a time for employers to make needed adjustments in their company culture to attract and retain good workers. According to Ms. Geise, “there are some businesses that are not having any employee retention problems. They have been competitive and accommodating all along. Others may need to review their compensation packages for competitive wages and incentives. They may need to adopt a more transparent team spirit to show their employees they are valued and important to the success of the company. They should talk about the health and safety of the workplace with their employees.”

Many of the local skilled nursing facilities in the area are offering sizeable sign-on bonuses for healthcare staff. Added benefits of tuition assistance, paid testing days, and full healthcare coverage are part of many incentive packages.

The Resource Center, whose funding is dictated by New York State, cannot make significant changes in the employment package offered to direct support professionals who work directly with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Michele Albaugh, Director of Recruitment and Staff Learning & Development said, “our starting salary was increased in July. We have been strong in advocating for increased funding to be able to increase wages in support of the staffing. This is necessary for us to make significant change, and we would love the support of our community in this effort. In regard to our direct support professionals, once people become employed there are many opportunities for increased wages. We offer shift differentials and a stipend for becoming certified through the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. We have a direct support career ladder which offers opportunities for progression in direct support as well as bridging toward other careers.”

The Resource Center will be part of a state-wide job fair taking place September 23 to recruit people to become direct support professionals. For other positions, they been able to offer incentives. Ms. Albaugh added, “we offer a $5,000 sign-in bonus for dental hygienists. For licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, a $1,000 commitment bonus will be paid after one year of employment. Our nursing jobs are unlike other nursing jobs – working with the same people and amongst an interdisciplinary team allows for you to stretch your clinical skills into all areas of someone’s life. Working at TRC, you know you are making a difference.”

The Resource Center offers a comprehensive benefits package which includes paid time off, health insurance, life insurance, tuition reimbursement, and flexible scheduling. These are common offerings across the healthcare industry.

All three of the Resource Center’s businesses worked throughout the pandemic providing supports for people with developmental disabilities, health services, and manufacturing. Ms. Albaugh said, “our staff have shown great dedication and commitment but have been putting in long hours. They welcome new team members to join them in helping people have great lives. As people join our team at TRC, everyone benefits.”

Workplace Training Options

The Workforce Investment Board (WIB) has a one-on-one workplace training program that has proven successful. The new employee works with a WIB staff member leaning the new position. The employer is reimbursed for half of the employees’ pay during the training. “We have trained ten employees over the past few months and have applications for three more to start soon,” said Ms. Geise. For more information contact Katie Geise at kgeise@chautauquaworks.com.

There are many training possibilities in the area. If one is looking to work at a certain job or profession, reach out to employers to find out how to be part of their company. Businesses are looking for interested employees. The Chautauqua County Partnership for Economic Growth website, https://www.chqpartnership.org/workforce, has a list of training options.

The Future of Working

When the pandemic forced our communities to shut down many workers were able to work from home. Others, forced to leave frontline jobs, changed their career paths to do remote work. Remote work is not new, but it has grown since the pandemic. Productivity did not drop during the “work-from-home” period. Many businesses are now working on their plans to return staff to the office. Remote workers and those who will work from home a few days per week are now seen as important members of the office team. Remote and work from home positions are here for the long run.

Young people, aged 25-40, have recognized they can work anywhere with remote positions. They are looking to move closer to their families. Chautauqua County is family friendly and ready to welcome home those that grew up here and moved away for work and education.

The importance of the work-life balance was highlighted during the past 18 months. Having quality time for work, family, friends and interests is key to a healthy life. Take some time to think about what you want in life; it is short and fragile. Finding a rewarding job is key to a successful life.