Many in South Jersey struggling to find employment although 'there's jobs everywhere' – Courier Post

She has decades of experience, more than 40 certifications and completed multiple handywork apprenticeships — yet she’s been unemployed since the beginning of the pandemic. 
Sunnie Corona, 35, is a single mom of three who has lived at a hotel in Somers Point since April 2020. She, like many in South Jersey, is “caught in (a) catch-22″ when seeking employment. 
“I’ve been working since I was 8-and-a-half, so I have one hell of a work ethic,” said Corona.
She tried to donate plasma for money but couldn’t because she lives in a hotel and not at a stable address. She tried selling from her storage locker through Facebook, but no one bought anything. She tried selling homemade dog treats but that didn’t take off either. 
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Over the summer, she tried making deliveries through DoorDash. With no one to watch her kids, she’d load them up into her 20-year-old car and drive until they couldn’t tolerate each other any longer or it got dark — whichever came first. Most of the $60–$70 she made per week went to recouping the money she spent on gas. 
When Corona has applied for management positions, employers tend to ignore her qualifications because she doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree. When she’s applied for customer service jobs, employers tell her she has “an impressive resume,” but they go with other candidates, she said. 
And even though she only has access to sluggish hotel Wi-Fi, she applies for remote positions anyway with the intention to invest in a mobile hotspot if she gets the job. 
But all this grit and determination gets disregarded when she tells employers about her children, she said. Her oldest, an 11-year-old girl, has had multiple brain and spinal surgeries since birth and her middle child, a 6-year-old boy, also has health concerns. 
None of the employers she’s interviewed with have wanted to work around her children’s fluctuating school schedules and her daughter’s medical uncertainties, she said. 
“I’ve been told, ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to fulfill our needs,’” said Corona. “I have 20 years of restaurant experience … I worked in management, in facilities, (at) KB Toy store before that went out of business.” 
“So, it’s not the fact that I can’t fulfill, it’s the fact that I just told you about my kids and now all of a sudden that’s thrown a sour taste in your mouth,” she said. 
Choosing which jobs to pursue is also a challenge, she said. 
She either has to work a full-time job where she makes enough money to afford childcare or work a part-time job so she can be around to take care of her kids. She also needs to make enough money to pay for her children’s medical expenses. Right now, she can afford state health insurance because she’s unemployed. If she were to get a part-time minimum wage job, she would need to get one that provides her immediate and affordable medical benefits. 
Her own health and wellbeing are also concerns for her. 
“I’m all my kids get now. I have to pay attention more to myself, my health and how much wear and tear I’m putting on my body for my kids,” she said.
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Stephanie Sawyer, of Mount Laurel, is another mom who struggled to secure a job in 2021. Unlike Corona, she found one, but not without confusion and frustration. 
A former copywriter for a promotional products company, she was “spoiled” by flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere. But, when the pandemic struck, corporate events ceased, and businesses stopped buying branded pens and water bottles. Immediately after losing her job, Sawyer started looking for another one. 
She sought a local part-time job so she could be around to support her daughter while she plays school volleyball. She signed up to receive daily emails from the major career websites — Zip Recruiter, Indeed and LinkedIn — but none of the jobs fit. 
“If it was good, it wasn’t part-time. If it was part-time, the pay was abysmal,” she said. 
She didn’t hear back from jobs she was “way overqualified” for but would then see them still posted on job boards weeks later. 
She didn’t even need benefits; she gets them through her husband, a retired police officer. 
In December, Sawyer found a job as an administrative assistant for an apartment complex. But her experience left her puzzled, unsure what employers are looking for and why they wouldn’t contact a qualified candidate. 
“I think other people have to be in my position, where they’re at a frustration point with everyone saying, ‘there’s jobs everywhere, there’s jobs everywhere,’” said Sawyer. “But there’s just a disconnect between the ‘jobs everywhere’ and the ‘I’m looking for a job,’ and I don’t what that disconnect is.”
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Corona and Sawyer are two of thousands of people in South Jersey confronting economic uncertainties heading into 2022. 
In November, the unemployment rate in South Jersey ranged from 5% across Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties to 8.2% in Cape May County, according to the latest available preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about 50,000 people who were unemployed. 
In Cumberland County, the number of people employed in financial activities decreased by 10% between November 2020 and 2021 — one of the largest single-sector employment rate decreases in South Jersey. 
Atlantic County saw the second largest metro area decrease in unemployment rate in the country over the same period — 7.6%, down from 14.2%. 
The national unemployment rate was 3.9% and 199,000 new jobs were created in December, but 6.3 million people were still unemployed, according to the BLS. 
Wages across the country were also stagnant, if not decreasing, as of November. The average hourly wage was $31.03, nearly a $1.50 increase from 2020. However, when accounting for cost-of-living increases and other factors, that represents a nearly 2% decrease in earnings since November 2020. 
The two major economic issues to lookout for in the coming months are labor and supply chains, according to Ryotaro Tashiro, senior outreach economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. 
In other words: who is or isn’t working and what materials are they working with? 
“Every single CEO I’ve spoken to, in the past couple months, have been talking about how difficult it has been to hire people and then how expensive labor cost has been,” said Tashiro during an interview on Jan. 6. 
People are reluctant to take on jobs because of health concerns, he said. 
Working parents are also struggling to stay at or find a job. School districts returning to remote instruction and the availability of childcare affects their ability to either take on jobs or to reconfigure their current ones, said Tashiro. 
Many people are also quitting and resigning in droves because they want to get paid better. 
“For those who stayed in the labor force, when we think about the so-called ‘Great Resignation,’ and how people have been switching jobs, wages do play a pretty significant role,” he said. 
Faced with these hiring difficulties, Tashiro said that firms have been “pretty rapidly” increasing wages in the past six months. Almost all labor sectors are experiencing some wage growth, he said; none “went through zero or negative growth.” 
Although wages are the primary way to attract candidates, according to Tashiro, some firms are also reevaluating non-monetary incentives. Almost every business he’s talked to has shifted their operations to allow for as much remote work as is feasible, and many are reviewing their whole benefit packages, he said. 
These rising labor costs are increasing the price of consumer products, like gas and groceries, according to Tashiro. However, prices are also increasing because businesses are struggling to access raw materials. Steel and aluminum, for example, are more challenging to purchase, he said.  
A long-term issue more people should pay attention to, according to Tashiro, is also a labor one: an aging population and a wave of retirements. The retired population increased by more than 1% last year, a significant one-year increase according to Tashiro. That is also a significant portion of the labor force. 
“If we have all these folks retiring and not coming back to the labor force, that’s going to affect the supply of labor,” he said. 
An aging population also impacts the housing market, he said. Retirees and empty nesters looking to downsize are competing with young families for a dwindling supply of smaller, or “starter,” homes. 
Aedy Miller covers education and the economy for the Burlington County Times, Courier-Post, and The Daily Journal. They are a multimedia journalist from Central Jersey and a recent graduate of the George Washington University.
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