What's stopping Delawareans from going back to work? It's not just unemployment benefits

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Like so many people at the start of the pandemic, Corianne Duffy lost her job.

The Newark resident had been punching in hours at a Wilmington dry cleaners six days a week for three years, but was forced out of work after her 7-year-old daughter's school shut down.

Before the pandemic, the 33-year-old single mom hadn't been unemployed since she was 15. The sudden reliance on government assistance, she said, was a rude awakening.

"It took more of a mental toll on me than a financial toll," she said. "I've always worked. I love working."

It only got harder in November when her boyfriend died of an asthma attack. He helped take care of her daughter, Teegan, and his job as a tombstone-engraver had helped pay the bills. When he was still alive, she had planned to find a job working a few days a week at Wawa.

But now, her schedule won't allow it, and there's no possible way for her to find a job, she said.

"There are places hiring. I won't deny that there's places everywhere," Duffy said. "We don't all come from a two-person family. Nobody's really willing to hire me just for Thursdays and Fridays during school, two days a week about 10 hours a week."

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Duffy's situation is not unique. There is a plethora of job openings as Delaware heads into the critical summer tourism season, but there are not enough workers to fill them.

Pro-business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Republicans have pinned the labor shortage on an extra $300 a week that Congress approved for unemployed workers.

But the case of Duffy and others in similar dilemmas is more complicated than a boost in federal unemployment.

Her daughter is in school only on Thursdays and Fridays, so she now spends her weeks teaching her daughter and driving them to Philadelphia three times a week to also help her 13-year-old brother through virtual learning while their parents, both police officers, are on duty.

She's been collecting $200 a week in state unemployment benefits since April 2020, not including federal benefits, and living off food stamps. She's been saving as much as she can in anticipation for the government assistance to run out, as she worries about how she will be able to take care of her daughter if it does.

"I have that mentality where you can't trust anybody except yourself when it comes to supporting yourself," she said. "Depending on an outside source for my finances, I've never had to do."

It's been the toughest year of her life, but she considers the unemployment benefit a "life-saver."

Moms forced out of the workforce

Corianne Duffy, shown with her 7-year-old daughter, Teegan, said it's not so easy to go back to work when she can't afford child care.

She's one of potentially thousands of people in Delaware who are unable to go back to work.

Another one of them is Cindy Meisinger, a Dover mother and small-business owner. About five years ago, the 37-year-old quit her job as a dental assistant to run an Etsy shop selling custom-made items such as shirts, mugs and water bottles. She usually grosses about $70,000 a year, she said.

Like many moms, her career was upended in mid-March 2020, when Gov. John Carney ordered schools to close as part of his state of emergency order to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

At first, Meisinger expected her two kids to be home for just two weeks. She juggled her family's needs with the demands of her business, expecting life to go back to normal later that spring. But by mid-April 2020, reality hit her.

"I just couldn't keep up," she said. "There was no way to simultaneously help them with school and fill my orders."

Meisinger had to let her part-time assistant go and stopped working herself.

One of her children, a third-grader, has special needs and has struggled with virtual learning. His disability, she said, has only been exacerbated this past year. No one else can watch him during the day, which has prevented her from turning her attention back to her business.

Her kids go to school on Thursday and Friday, but Monday through Wednesday her days consist of sitting with her third-grader and helping him through his schoolwork, along with helping her first-grader.

She considers herself lucky because she has the help of her husband who has been able to work full-time through the pandemic.

She has collected unemployment since October after first filing in April 2020. But she doesn't see the point in going back to work herself. Most if not all of her earnings, she expects, would go toward child care — especially if the job pays close to the minimum wage.

She's waiting for the day that she can reopen her Etsy shop.

"I desperately want to go back to work," Meisinger said. "I miss doing what I do. It's a passion."

More:Why Delaware companies are struggling to fill jobs one year into the COVID pandemic

Day care centers have their own struggles

Lucinda Ross, executive director of St. Micheal's School and Nursery, said it has been difficult to hire staff as more people head back to work.

Even child care facilities say they are struggling to hire because pre-pandemic employees have had to stay home to take care of their children.

Lucinda Ross, executive director of St. Michael's School & Nursery in Wilmington, said her facility is still about five employees short of being back to full staff and has had to cut back hours to make up for the empty positions.

She said she hears from colleagues at other child care centers in the state who are facing similar staffing shortages.

"The vast majority of our workforce are female," Ross said. "And it falls to the mothers to take care of the school-age folks."

Others have different obstacles.

Patricia Stack said in an email that she suspects ageism is preventing older job-seekers like herself from returning to work in non-entry-level jobs.

The 51-year-old Wilmington resident was laid off from her job as a communications director last spring and has been unemployed ever since. Despite applying for dozens of jobs a week, she's lucky if she lands two to three interviews per month. Even those interviews, she said, lead nowhere.

"I get passed up time after time," Slack wrote. "I would give my right arm to be hired and to be able to resume my career."

But it's taken a toll on the people who have returned to work.

One retail worker in Rehoboth Beach, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, said she's overwhelmed working at an outlet store that is half-staffed. She's been working the job for nearly seven years and has never seen so many people arriving at the beach this early in the year.

"It's like a Fourth of July weekend, every weekend," she said.

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How the government has played a role

The worker shortage comes as Delaware's weekly unemployment benefit has come into the spotlight in recent months.

Ranging from $20 to $400, the payment is the lowest in the Mid-Atlantic and the 17th lowest in the country.

Families who have relied on the weekly government assistance, even with the extra federal money, have reported threats of eviction, repossession of their cars, living off food stamps and creating GoFundMe pages to pay for basic living expenses.

But to many people, choosing between that and an entry-level job isn't a clear-cut decision.

Delaware's minimum wage is $9.25 an hour, and the Democratic-controlled Statehouse still hasn't agreed on a bill to gradually raise it to $15 an hour by 2025.

Fewer people are receiving unemployment benefits compared with this time last year, but the rate is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Delaware Department of Labor.

In April 2020, more than 41,000 people were receiving benefits compared with less than 9,000 people in April 2021.

But it's still nearly twice as many people who were on unemployment just before the pandemic, data show.

Throughout the pandemic, women have consistently filed for unemployment at higher rates than men.

Child care centers are open to nonessential workers and capacity requirements have been lifted since restrictions were put in place during the pandemic, though mask requirements are still in place.

However, because some summer camps and programs still aren't fully open or open at all, families could be having trouble finding child care openings, according to Education Department spokesperson Alison May.

But child care isn't the only obstacle. Other forms of caregiving, such as taking care of older parents, could also be preventing people from going back to work.

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Many people who are immunocompromised may also avoid applying for jobs that would put them at risk, such as restaurant jobs, or have moved on to a different career path after losing their job during the pandemic, experts said.

It's hard to blame the nationwide phenomenon on unemployment benefits in part because most states have been requiring unemployed people to search for work, said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Delaware has yet to require unemployed people to search for work while collecting benefits.

But starting on June 12, Delawareans must look for work and register with the state's online job resource to receive the money. Since the start of the pandemic, the requirement has been waived.

"If they (state governments) really want to encourage people to move into work, they should do whatever they can within their own state laws to ensure safe workplaces," he added.

President Joe Biden's administration has also taken notice of the phenomenon.

During a May 13 press call with Mid-Atlantic reporters, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said he disagrees with the narrative that people simply won't go back to work because of the unemployment benefit despite jobs being available.

He cited child care, hybrid school models and ongoing fear of the virus as some examples of why people are still unemployed.

Most people, Walsh said, want to get back to work if the opportunity presents itself, and it's "incumbent upon all of us" to make sure people return to work as soon as possible.

"I'm predicting in the next couple of months, more and more Americans are going to go back to work," Walsh said. 

"Those help wanted signs that we're seeing pop up around different places will start to come down."

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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.