By Jennifer Berrier
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique personal and professional obstacles that none of us prepared for or imagined. At the Department of Labor & Industry, we’ve been assisting Pennsylvanians with the challenges posed by the pandemic over the past year and are helping them prepare for the very different economy that awaits us after the pandemic is over.
COVID-19 rapidly changed the global economy in many unexpected ways. Millions of jobs around the world disappeared almost overnight last spring. While many of these jobs have returned, others are being replaced by new and different types of work.
L&I wants Pennsylvanians to be ready for the new post-pandemic economy. We don’t know everything about this economy yet, but we are already seeing signs of some of the changes. One example is how teleworking, that was initially implemented to assist with social distancing, is becoming permanent for many companies. The switchover to teleworking caused many of these workers to need to learn new computer skills.
To assist workers with gaining new skills, L&I expanded the virtual services offered through our 60 PA CareerLink® offices across Pennsylvania.
Additionally, we redesigned the PA CareerLink® website to be more user friendly, which simplified the hiring process for jobseekers and employers alike. These were important changes because even before the pandemic, the job search and application process had moved almost entirely online for most businesses. To further accommodate increased online hiring practices, PA CareerLink® offices are offering online job fairs to connect employers with job seekers.
We also recently announced the availability of $4.5 million to provide Digital Literacy and Workforce Development Grants to support local programs across the commonwealth. These grants will enhance foundational digital literacy skills for job seekers and help provide them with increased access to employment opportunities.
L&I continues to work with its partners to create new apprenticeships and other on-the-job training programs that allow workers to gain skills while earning a wage. This helps ensure Pennsylvania workers are receiving training for the jobs skills that are needed in today’s workplaces while supporting businesses in developing a workforce with specialized skills for their industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions and layoffs to Pennsylvania’s workforce, disproportionately impacting low-wage workers, people of color, people with disabilities, and certain industries. Our economic recovery requires a strategic investment in workforce development that addresses these inequities, supports workers most significantly impacted by the pandemic, and focuses on high-quality, well-paying jobs and careers.
Work started before the pandemic by the bipartisan Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center will continue to play an important role in helping Pennsylvania tackle workforce hurdles. Many of the barriers to employment identified by Command Center last January have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including transportation and childcare.
In his recent budget address, Governor Tom Wolf proposed a multi-billion-dollar injection into the workforce development system to provide rapid re-employment assistance to workers impacted by the pandemic and to address workforce barriers. L&I knows that by creating innovative programs to overcome these barriers, we can build an even stronger workforce and economic climate in the commonwealth than we had before the pandemic began. This bold new plan further builds on the recommendations from the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center to ensure a rapid rebuilding of our economy, ensuring prosperity for generations to come.
As we move further into 2021, we will continue to assess the services provided through the PA CareerLink® offices and our workforce development system to provide both job seekers and businesses with the tools they need to navigate this new employment environment. These programs are just a few examples of how L&I is preparing Pennsylvanians for the post-pandemic economy. But we also know there are many Pennsylvanians who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are struggling and need help right now.
Since the start of the pandemic, Pennsylvania has paid out more than $35 billion in unemployment benefits to date. This includes payments made through several programs created by the federal government’s CARES Act.
L&I worked closely with the federal Department of Labor to implement payments for these programs as quickly as possible because we know these payments support more than just their direct beneficiaries and their families — they go back into communities through spending and help prevent additional business closures and job losses.
We also added additional staffing to our Unemployment Compensation Service Center to assist with the increase in claims. And, we are on track to transition to a new, modern unemployment benefits system that will replace the 40+ year-old legacy system currently used to administer UC benefits and appeals and streamline the filing process for staff, claimants, employers and third-party administrators. The new, modernized system will be more customer and staff friendly, and provide claimants with real-time access to claims info.
Though the pandemic has undoubtedly caused employment to take the spotlight over the past year, we haven’t lost sight of the other critical functions L&I provides. We’ve continued to monitor workplace safety, which has helped employees feel more comfortable with returning to work during the pandemic. We’ve assisted thousands of Pennsylvanians by overseeing Workers’ Compensation claims. And we’ve carried on with numerous other duties that continue to make Pennsylvania a great place to work and do business, even during this pandemic.
While the final months of this pandemic will undoubtedly bring many more challenges, I feel optimistic for the road ahead. We have already overcome so much and our preparations for the future have placed Pennsylvanians in a good position to successfully enter the post-pandemic world.
Jennifer Berrier is acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.