Uphill battle Ohio job seekers face

Buckeyes Battle Uneven Playing Field; COVID-19 exacerbates trends; Women and Young Workers Hit Particularly Hard

By Kevin Williams 

Graphics by Cid Standifer

This public service journalism article provided by nonprofit nonpartisan Eye on Ohio, the Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism

Carmine Ballard graduated from The Ohio State University in 2016, with two Bachelor of Arts degrees— one in Psychology, another in Women’s and Gender Studies. Ballard’s parents helped them through college— paying their tuition. Yet, despite that, Ballard still ended up with about $10,000 worth of federal student loans by graduation, for living expenses during college.

Ballard graduated with a 3.0 average, and made the dean’s list several times. Ballard planned to get into counseling and spaces that served minorities and other at risk populations. 

However, after more than twenty-five applications and interviews that didn’t go anywhere, Carmine, short on cash after three months of applying, ended up taking a food service job to make ends meet. The $114 a month for their student loan repayment was too much to handle with very little income, so Ballard’s parents continued to help out.

“When I tried to apply for jobs, I just wouldn’t hear back. I couldn’t even get a job doing clerical work,” said Ballard. 

After a while, Ballard eventually got a job at BarkBox – doing customer service, making $14 an hour. Although not what they went to school for, the job was steady and offered benefits. 

Then the stay-at-home order issued by Governor DeWine happened, and Barkbox laid off Ballard. Ballard had been struggling to find gainful employment before the advent of coronavirus, but now Ballard said its impact makes them feel insecure about their future. Currently, Ballard has been focusing on applying for the new unemployment provisions the state of Ohio has provided.

Job Growth had been slow, not enough jobs to cover the amount of unemployed

For years, Ohio’s job growth has lagged behind the national average. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is set to release its statewide unemployment tally for the previous month.  (GRAPH) 


Post COVID-19, job losses accelerated dramatically— particularly in Northeast and Northwest Ohio. 

“Large numbers of formerly employed individuals are suffering from what will probably be certified in a few months by NBER as a sharp and damaging recession,” said Ohio economist George Zeller. “The damage is not only in Manufacturing and Government, but is also for the first time in years concentrated in retail trade, airlines, hotels and related industries. That is extremely dangerous of course, both for public health and also for the Ohio economy itself.”

(GRAPH) https://public.flourish.studio/story/287392/

Ohio women and young people have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19; filing the most unemployment applications compared to everyone else. Although women only made up around a third of unemployment filings for all of 2019, they made up more than half of all unemployment filings in March 2020— when Ohio’s Stay-at-home order saw many businesses close. 

GDP accounts for care industries like childcare and eldercare – but only the paid positions and wealth generated by those jobs. However, a great deal of care work remains unpaid, such as raising kids or caring for elderly or sick family members. The Center for American Progress in 2018 estimated that nationally, working mothers are more likely to provide childcare, and spend more time doing so. Between paid work, unpaid work, and leisure, working mothers spent an average of 14.2 hours per day on activities; compared to a mere 11.8 hours per day average of all workers, regardless of familial obligations.

“Nationally, the median age for employees in the Leisure and hospitality sector and the accommodation and food services sector is 32 and 31 respectively. That is significantly lower than the median age across all industries which is 42,” said Dr. Christelle Khalaf, an economist at Ohio University. “In addition, school closures might be forcing younger households with less flexible jobs to work less in order to care for their children. The gender division of labor usually allocates household production to women. Therefore there is a real concern here that COVID-19 is reversing a lot of the progress that women have made in recent years in terms of labor force participation.” 

Some have withdrawn family members out of nursing homes. Out of the total coronavirus deaths in the state as of May 20, 79 percent of them have been in long-term care facilities, which includes nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Some caretakers are still working from home— and many report that there is reduced productivity at work, since many now have to mind their children during the day. But refusing to return to work, even with underlying conditions, can have legal consequences.


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Donna Sprague, a retired nurse, was working as a rideshare driver. 

Until the stay-at-home order, Sprague was driving anywhere from five to six hours a day, roughly 30 hours a week. Her husband had a stroke two years ago and now is completely unable to work. Her income from Social Security only covers around 60% of her living expenses, so she would drive to close the gap, in between taking care of her husband.

However, with the advent of COVID-19, Donna is forced to stay home.

“I have a lot of co-morbidity and health issues, so my doctor told me to stop driving [for Lyft and Uber],” she said.

Lyft and Uber both have a COVID-19 fund to compensate drivers, but it only applies to those formally diagnosed or told to quarantine by a doctor. 

Traditionally, gig economy work hasn’t been eligible for things offered to traditional employees – like unemployment insurance. But, Ohio implemented the “Pandemic Assistance Program” funded by legislation in the CARES Act. This expanded unemployment not only extends unemployment benefits to people previously not eligible but also adds an extra $600 a week on top of regular unemployment benefits paid out.

Donna Sprague isn’t sure how to apply for the benefits, and she is unsure if she will qualify for any expanded unemployment, or if answering incorrectly will jeopardize her chances of receiving assistance.

“I don’t know what to put, because technically we weren’t laid off,” she said. Aside from the $1,200 one-time stimulus payout, Sprague has no income until her next Social Security check. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services created the “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” or “PUA” program specially created for independent contractors and anyone else who got rejected for unemployment. But two full months after the shutdown went into effect, the agency is just now starting to pay claims.

“Pandemics are not gender neutral. Women are overrepresented in service occupations and occupations that involve care and interacting with people. In an increasingly service-based economy, this has comparatively helped women over time in terms of employment — though in terms of wages many service-based and care occupations are lower paying,” said Dr. Amanda Weinstien, a University of Akron Economist. “In a pandemic where contact with people can increase the spread, many of those service jobs (retail, restaurants, daycare) have been eliminated. This leaves many women without work – unemployed. Add to that the increased stresses of childcare, housework, even increases in domestic violence reports … women are struggling right now.”

Affordable Education Slipping Further Out of Reach

(GRAPH) https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/2092201/

The Ohio Department of Higher Education estimated that 64% of all Ohio jobs would need some form of post-secondary education or skill by 2020. But many of the new Ohio jobs left unfilled require some form of post-secondary education.

Getting an education is particularly hard for minority populations. Ohio’s high-school graduation rate for African-American students is the 7th lowest in the nation; at 67% in 2018. The college attainment rate is also low – 27%; lower than the 31% national average, and much lower than the 48% for white students. Hispanic students also see similarly low numbers, with a 27% college attainment rate.

And COVID has further complicated the cost-benefit analysis. 

According to The Institute for College Access and Success, in 2018, 60% of all Ohio college grads (who attended a four-year college or above) graduated with an average of $30,323 of debt; the 18th highest amount of debt in the country. 

In 2019, non-profit youth organization Junior Achievement surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 teens nationally and found that 59% thought that getting a four year degree was an important goal of theirs, but 47% of them had concerns of how to pay for it. 

In April of 2020, Junior Achievement did a special COVID-19 survey, and learned that 44% of the high school juniors and seniors they surveyed feel COVID-19 has affected how they will pay for college. Of the ones who said that COVID-19 would change their plans, 58% said they’re now more likely to take out student loans to pay for college. The survey also showed that 27% of the teens surveyed have decided to skip college altogether and just work right out of high school, and around 18% of teens said that COVID-19 has caused them to reconsider their career choice.

Connor Brown is from Reynoldsburg— and has been working since he was 19. Most of his jobs have paid low wages. Brown said that his parents could not afford to give him any financial support for college, as all of them struggled financially. Focused on taking care of himself, he decided to work full time right out of high school.

“I decided to get a job, and see where it takes me,” said Brown.

Brown has worked a series of low-wage jobs, usually multiple at once. His first job was at Burger King, where, from the age of 19, he worked regularly 40 hours a week, as a crew member. His schedule varied wildly. Oftentimes, the bus schedule didn’t line up with his work schedule— especially on his overnight shifts. 

“I walked on the side of the road to work, a lot of times.” said Brown. 

For him, the walk from his home in Reynoldsburg, to his job in Canal Winchester, was more than two hours, and he often travelled late at night.

Later, he moved up to a crew trainer position at Burger King which came with a pay bump— moving from making around $8 an hour to $9 an hour. Still, his take-home pay was only around $280 per week – after taxes. Brown said he often had at least one other job at the same time, fitting them in between working full time at Burger King. His cash went to living expenses, namely rent and utilities. After paying for those things, and food, there often wasn’t much left. 

“I’ve been in the red, even while working-full time. With the time I’ve spent [at work], I shouldn’t have trouble paying my bills.” said Brown.

With such low pay, setting money aside for emergencies or saving to buy a vehicle was nearly impossible for Brown. The second (and sometimes third) job he worked in tandem with Burger King did help give some of a boost to his finances, but often at the expense of his quality of life. 

Brown said he worked at least 55 hours minimum between his multiple jobs, not including the increased commute time from not having a vehicle. That left him with little free time to rest, relax, or see family and friends.

Brown said that the health insurance plans offered to him from Burger King and the other low wage jobs he worked were too expensive. For him, they usually came with high monthly premiums, sometimes taking nearly a third of his take-home pay. So, he stayed on his mother’s plan until he aged out at 26. Shortly after, he had a medical emergency where his throat closed up. He recovered, but tests didn’t reveal why he had trouble breathing. A few weeks later, a bill for his care showed up at his apartment— more than $2,000. Brown says he’s still paying off his hospital bill, little by little.

After nearly a decade of working, Brown, now 27, eventually started work at Spectrum Wireless in early March- making $15 an hour with benefits.

Still, Brown doesn’t feel that going back to school is possible for him at this time; “with the work culture, I don’t see it. I work so much to pay bills, I don’t know where I would have the time to take off work and go [to college].”

COVID-19 also creating new opportunities 

Melissa Kelsey, 54, originally from Cincinnati, now lives in Columbus. After her recent divorce last year, she found herself on her own – and needed to work to take care of herself.

For a while, she drove for Lyft and Uber – she said that on average she could make $3,000 a month – enough to pay her bills and live comfortably. Yet, after COVID-19, reduced rideshare demand meant that she was no longer bringing in enough income to make ends meet. 

She applied to an Amazon Fulfillment center and was approved to work within a week.

She said the $17 an hour offered, $2 more an hour than normal, was going to likely be more than she ever made from Lyft and Uber driving, and offered a consistent 40 hours per week scheduled.

“I went ahead and [signed up] for 40 hours, which terrifies me because driving your vehicle around is different than being on your feet. But, I want to get ahead of the game and stay there,” she said. 

She hopes that her teaching degree will prove valuable to her job, and hopefully put her in line for promotions within, potentially training new hires.

“All I care about right now, is just getting in there, because we’re drowning.” She said.

Governor DeWine’s coronavirus jobs website has more than 35,000 jobs available – links to employers all around Ohio. However, at least  1.1 million Ohioans are unemployed.

Dr. Andrew Kidd, an economist with the right-leaning Buckeye Institute, said the key was to give people the skills for in-demand jobs, like programs that are designed to train people on the job and expanding similar programs to high schoolers.

“We have to find ways to get people the skills that are in demand now, or will be in demand in the future. That is the key that will get people the access to jobs that pay well where they can provide for their families.”

The Buckeye Institute also publishes an annual “Piglet Book” that identifies potential areas where the state of Ohio can cut spending and reduce the tax burden of both regular Ohioans and Ohio businesses, Kidd said. 

Hannah Halbert, Executive Director of left-leaning Policy Matters said crafting “people first” policies should be at the forefront of Ohio Legislation, especially post COVID-19. The think tank said that before COVID, six out of the ten most popular jobs did not pay enough for a family of three to live without assistance. For them, making sure workers can have a good standard of living is part of their ethos; as is investing in state-funded education, affordable healthcare, and affordable housing for all Ohioans. 

Halbert said that making sure state grants and revenue-generation options for post-secondary education remain funded post- COVID-19 is essential.

“The share of Ohioans with degrees is higher than it has been in the past, but we haven’t been able to bring the poverty rate down to where it had been before 2007. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of jobs, and for whom?”

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