Expert: No sector of Pa. economy left untouched by COVID-19 downturn

    The Department of Labor and Industry's unemployment webpage.

    About two in five Pennsylvania workers have been affected by COVID-19 related shutdowns, according to estimates from a University of Pittsburgh economist.

    Chris Briem, of Pitt’s Center for Urban and Social Research, estimated that just less than 41 percent of all Pennsylvania workers, 2.1 million people, are “potentially impacted” by Gov. Tom Wolf’s “life-sustaining” business order.

    Briem posted the numbers in a blog post on Pitt’s website Monday.

    Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry reported last week that 650,000 people applied for unemployment between March 15 and March 25. Overall, Pennsylvania represents about 11.5 percent of all U.S. jobless claims filed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “I have to believe the question is not, ‘Why are [Pennsylvania’s] numbers so much higher?’ but ‘Why are the numbers elsewhere not higher than they are?” Briem said in an email to the Capital-Star last week.

    Among the sectors hardest hit by Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 19 shutdown order are construction, “educational services” and “arts, entertainment and recreation,” according to Briem’s analysis. 

    Every worker in all three sectors is impacted, under Briem’s estimates.

    In the order, Wolf told all businesses, except for those deemed “life-sustaining,” to close. Businesses allowed to stay open include everything from grocery stories to gas stations, warehousing to gas drilling, along with most medical services.

    The order was not without pushback from all sides, who criticized a lack of clarity in the order, as well as the omission of businesses ranging from laundromats to gun shops. 

    The Wolf administration is now offering waivers, but has refused to reveal a full list of applicants or its decisions.

    Among the least affected sectors are health care and social assistance, where just 4 percent of jobs were impacted, and transportation and warehousing, with just under 1 percent impacted.

    Briem estimated that 44 percent of manufacturing jobs, as well as 48 percent of retail jobs, had also been impacted.

    Briem acknowledged that his numbers are far from complete. Some businesses might have sent workers home with pay, or laid workers off. They were not included in his estimates.

    The estimates also do not take into account that restaurants, which while permitted to physically stay open, can only serve takeout and delivery.

    Briem, for example, estimated that just 12 percent of restaurant and hospitality workers were affected by the pandemic induced shutdown.

    But John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, earlier estimated that just 20 percent of a restaurant’s workers could continue to be employed to prepare takeout.

    Since the state Department of Labor and Industry released its data last Thursday, 184,715 more people applied for unemployment through Sunday, March 29. That brings the total from the last 15 days to 834,684 new applications.

    Speaking to reporters Monday, Susan Dickinson, the state Labor Department’s director of unemployment compensation policy, said that new applicants should apply online. The unemployment system’s phone lines, she said, were still busy.

    Two weeks ago, the department said its lines were operating at half their usual staffing levels to meet Wolf’s directive to keep non-essential state workers home and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

    While the department is still processing claims, Dickinson advised anyone who feels they might qualify for unemployment to apply. Questions of eligibility, she said, can only be decided after someone has applied for unemployment benefits.

    Dickinson added that the department is still working out details of the new federal coronavirus stimulus bill just signed by President Donald Trump.

    The package includes $600 a week of federal dollars for all individuals who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. That includes those normally not eligible for unemployment insurance, such as gig workers or the self-employed.

    There is no timeline yet for the expanded benefits to reach people’s pocketbooks, the department added.

    As of Monday afternoon, the department told unemployment claimants on Twitter that the online claims system was undergoing technical difficulties.