Lawmakers offer options to get workers on job

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As the reeling economy works to regain its footing after the severe stumbles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, recent news headlines have been laced with employers crying out for staff, and the resulting impact of many businesses not being able to experience growth due to a lack of resources and employees.

Now, elected officials — like State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-47, Rome, and Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-22, New Hartford, among them — are discussing potential solutions.

Earlier this week, Tenney and the Manufacturer’s Association of Central New York held a Tuesday roundtable at Revere Copper to discuss employment stimulus legislation and ways the United States can boost manufacturing in the U.S.

Tenney serves on the Small Business Committee’s Subcommittee on Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Workforce Development, as well as the Subcommittee on Underserved, Agricultural, and Rural Business Development, and has recently been hosting business roundtables.

Among topics discussed at the Revere roundtable was the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, currently sponsored by Tenney. The legislation includes a provision of $10 billion in long-term debt with equity features to registered Small Business Association entities that invest in manufacturing industry small businesses.

“We hope that it will help with manufacturing,” Tenney said in a roundtable takeaway, adding that there is a need for more products to be readily available in the United States, as an example, she point to the availability shortfalls in personal protective equipment - PPE - at the onset of the pandemic.

“We couldn’t react quickly enough,” she said, recalling mask and hand sanitizer shortages. “We’re so dependent on things.”

But, American-based manufacturing production work is nothing without staff, employers say.

Tenney’s roundtable attendees included leaders from Revere, Sherrill Manufacturing and the Manufacturers Association of Central New York who all reported significant understaffing at area industries, all while “help wanted” signs on main streets are becoming as commonplace as social distancing and mask wearing protocols.

In recent weeks, area employers have been reporting slim-to-no pickings when it comes to getting applicants for available jobs. This, as the New York State Department of Labor reports the statewide average unemployment rate in April as being 8.2%.

Drilling down into the state Department of Labor data, the Utica-Rome area saw an unemployment rate of 6.0 percent in April 2021 compared to the April 2020 rate of 16.3 percent. Looking further back to the month of April rates of the recent past, 2019 was 3.9 percent; 2018 was 4.8 percent, 2017 was 5.1 percent, 2016 was 5.2 percent, 2015 was 5.9 percent and 2014 was 6.1 percent.

Griffo, at a Thursday press conference, offered several suggestions that he said can help the state address this issue, including dropping the enhanced federal benefit and/or offering financial incentives as other states are doing.

Griffo noted that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people receiving unemployment benefits have collected more money than they were earning at their jobs due to enhanced federal benefits - currently providing an additional $300 a week through September to those who are eligible. 

The state senator claims the extra money has incentivized some to remain on unemployment instead of returning to work, and added that about two dozen other states have announced that they will end enhanced federal COVID-19 unemployment benefits early. Those who support the additional unemployment funding — which is set to expire in New York in September — say that there are several other issues which are impacting the situation such as a lack of affordable and accessible child care and that many of the available jobs - particularly those in the restaurant industry - still pay poorly and involve long or uncertain hours. They add, the job market is subject to the same tenets of supply and demand and that available workers will go to the jobs that pay better, offer better conditions or are better suited to their specific situations.

Some employers are combating these issues by offering one-time financial incentives and payments to unemployed workers who accept a job.

Among possible New York remedies, Griffo spoke to legislation (S6771) he introduced that would provide an incentive for employees to return to work by having the state subsidize the difference between their pay for work and the amount they were earning while unemployed. 

At Griffo’s presser was Dr. Patricia Laino, executive director of The Business Training Institute in Utica. Laino added that additional support should be in place for employers to be able to provide COVID-19 workplace safety plans to make employees feel safe returning to work.

Laino, who heads up the business skill-building educational center, also said a lack of child care options due to staffing shortages at daycares is an additional concern people currently on unemployment have regarding the prospect of returning to work.

From the state

In a recent statement regarding governmental assistance available to alleviate work and life issues left reeling, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touted $3.5 billion in assistance for renters and small businesses experiencing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The small business recovery grant program makes up to $800 million in funding available for small businesses to help them recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. Applications for the program will be accepted starting June 10 for small and micro businesses and small for-profit independent arts and cultural organizations to help them recover from the economic impact of the pandemic,” reads a program outline, that continues, “Flexible grants up to $50,000 will be made available to eligible small businesses and can be used for operating expenses, including payroll, rent or mortgage payments, taxes, utilities, personal protective equipment, or other business expenses incurred during the pandemic. Over 330,000 small and micro businesses are potentially eligible for this program…”

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