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With One-Year COVID Anniversary At-Hand, Article Examines Pervasive Impact of Pandemic on Commonwealth

March 6th will be the one-year anniversary of the first two positive cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.

In recognition of the dubious milestone, USA Today’s Pennsylvania Network has launched a series of articles looking back at the impact the pandemic has had on the Commonwealth and what the future holds.

In the first installment on February 24th, the Beaver County Times reflected on how the number of cases had grown to include more than 900,000 infections and 23,000 deaths throughout Pennsylvania, and how an initial two-week shutdown of non-essential businesses and schools had become a year-long chore of mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing.

As of March 4th, the Department of Health reported a cumulative total of 941,439 cases statewide and 24,219 deaths.

“Nearly every facet of life has changed in the past 12 months, and despite the promise that comes with millions of doses of vaccine, no discernible end is in sight,” the Times reported.

“A year ago, we had no idea what we were in store for,” Candace Robertson-James, assistant professor of public health at La Salle University, told the newspaper. “We saw the full magnitude of it hit us and it was something we haven’t really experienced certainly in our lifetimes.”

The situation looked serious when the 7,735 cases reported in March ballooned to 42,337 in April. Yet, as spring turned to summer and mitigation practices became more commonplace, the curve flattened, dipping to about 15,000 in June and settling at about 25,000 for most of the summer.

But the worst days were ahead. Cases doubled to 51,000 for October, then peaked at 280,000 for December. The 88,000 cases recorded statewide in February was less than half of the January total, yet more than double what the state saw in April during the first wave.

PennLive offers a comprehensive, interactive webpage charting COVID-related data released by the Department of Health.

“We have learned so much since the first cases were diagnosed in the U.S.,” a Department of Health spokeswoman told the Times. “One of the biggest lessons is that the virus determines the timeline. From the first case in Pennsylvania to this being declared a global pandemic and through today, our goal has been to save lives.”

As Many Companies Raise Starting Wages, Worker Advocates Look Beyond Headlines to See Broader Impacts

Many employers of all sizes have moved to increase pay rates for their entry-level workers in recent years as public support and worker demand for higher minimum wages has continued to grow.

Just this week, UPMC, with its 92,000 employees, announced it has raised its minimum starting wage from $13.10 an hour to $15. It was not surprising news from the Pittsburgh-based healthcare provider. In 2016, the firm pledged to achieve the $15 minimum for all employees by this year.

Currently, the average annual compensation at UPMC is $70,600, the company said, and more than 38,000 employees earn more than $50,000 a year. The company did not state how many employees will directly benefit from the minimum wage hike.

UPMC has joined other large companies like Amazon, Costco, and Target who have raised their minimum wages to $15 an hour for all employees. Generally, they have touted their wage increases with much fanfare and publicity campaigns.

Other companies, notably Walmart, have appropriated the “$15 an hour” slogan to promote their own lesser wage increases. On February 18th, Walmart made headlines when it pledged to raise employee pay to $15 – not as a minimum wage, but as an average wage. The tactic may have backfired on the discount retailer as competitors were quick to point out the discrepancy.

Meanwhile, fair wage advocates are taking a much closer look at what may be motivating many companies to adopt the $15 minimum.

“Amazon’s lobbying for a $15 minimum wage is a PR boon, hiring strategy, anti-union tactic, and move against competitors all in one,” reported last month. “… Amazon’s push to support a $15 minimum wage is yet another example of how the massive company can throw its weight around on multiple sides of an equation in order to secure a better outcome for itself.”

Georgetown University history professor Joseph A. McCartin told the website, “When I say it’s about power, it’s not only the union but also the degree of government interference. It they’re paying $15 an hour and supporting that, what they really want is to be able to draw a curtain around their operations. … The true cost of working in these places are things that they want to keep from being transparent – something a union would do and subject to negotiation.”

In December, Bloomberg reported that more than 4,000 Amazon employees in nine states collect SNAP benefits. “Only Walmart, McDonald’s and two dollar store chains have more workers requiring such assistance,” the news agency wrote.

Even at a $15 minimum, Amazon’s wage scale is having a negative effect on average wages in many parts of the country, Bloomberg reported: “Six years ago, before the company opened a giant fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey, warehouse workers made $24 an hour on average, according to BLS data. (In 2019) the average hourly wage slipped to $17.50.”

PA Hospitality Businesses Affected by Pandemic Will Soon Be Able to Apply for New Grant Funding from Commonwealth

Governor Tom Wolf announced that the hospitality industry will soon be able to apply for immediate relief through the COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program (CHIRP), a new grant program established by the Wolf Administration to support local businesses in the hospitality industry that were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For so many businesses in the hospitality industry, taking the necessary steps that keep employees and patrons safe directly hurts their bottom line. After all the hardships businesses have endured, and all of the work they have done to keep their communities safer, they need and deserve our help,” Gov. Wolf said. “The COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program will provide immediate relief to these businesses and I urge them to apply as soon as the program opens in their county.”

In December, the governor initiated a transfer of $145 million to be appropriated by the state legislature into grants for businesses. The legislature approved the measure unanimously and it was enacted in February.

The Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) acted swiftly to open the application to all 67 counties, all of which immediately applied. Funding was provided in the form of block grants to each county based on population. Grants will be awarded in $5,000 increments with a $50,000 maximum.

Each county will administer the funding through one or more designated Certified Economic Development Organization (CEDO) or Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which will then process applications from businesses in each county. CEDOs or CDFIs must begin accepting applications from businesses by March 15.
Program guidelines are available on DCED’s website.

A business is eligible if:

  • It has a North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) designation within the Accommodation subsector (721) or Food Services and Drinking Places subsector (722) and where accommodations, food, or drink is served to or provided for the public, with or without charge;
  • It has fewer than 300 full-time equivalent employees;
  • It has a maximum tangible net worth of not more than $15 million;
  • It was in operation on February 15, 2020 and remains in operation and does not intend to permanently cease operations within one year of the date of application; and,
  • COVID-19 has had an adverse economic impact on the eligible applicant which makes the grant request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the eligible applicant.

Priority will be given to applicants that:

  • Have not received a loan or grant issued under the authority of the commonwealth or the commonwealth’s political subdivisions or by the federal government;
  • Were subject to closure by the Governor’s disaster declaration; or
  • Can demonstrate a reduction in gross receipts of 50% or more for the period from March 31st, 2020, to December 31st, 2020, in comparison to the same period in 2019; or, if the eligible applicant was not in operation during the entire comparison period, but was in operation on February 15th, 2020, a monthly average reduction in gross receipts of 50% or more for the period from March 31st, 2020, to December 31st, 2020, in comparison to the period from January 1st, 2020, to April 1st, 2020.

Businesses with questions or concerns should contact their local county offices, CEDO, or CDFI for more information.

February 2021 National Jobs Update

The seasonally adjusted national unemployment rate fell to 6.2% in February 2021, down 0.1% over the month. The rate has declined every month since April 2020 with the exception of December 2020, when it remained unchanged. Since hitting 14.8% in April 2020, its highest level in the history of the seasonally adjusted series (dating back to 1948 - prior to this time, unemployment was estimated to have hit roughly 25% during the Great Depression of the 1930s), the rate has declined 8.6%. Between February and April 2020, the national unemployment rate rose 11.3% (from 3.5% to 14.8%).
This and the other changes to data noted in this update reflect the evolution of the national employment situation through the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment rolls fell by 158,000 individuals in February 2021 to 9.972 million, dropping below the 10 million level for the first time since March 2020. In comparison to April 2020, when unemployment hit a series-record high of 23.109 million (with growth of 17.392 million between February and April 2020), total unemployment was down by 13.137 million in February 2021. As has been the case during the pandemic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has indicated that unemployment figures would have been higher for the month if survey respondents who were on temporary layoff had been properly classified as unemployed.

As of February 2021, the national unemployment rate stood 2.7% higher than its level of 3.5% in February 2020 (which matched the nearly 50 year low seen in 2019) with total unemployment standing 4.255 million higher than the February 2020 level of 5.717 million individuals. National unemployment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Unemployment – 9,972,000
  • Change Over Month –    DOWN   158,000
  • Change Over Year –    UP   4,255,000
  • Rate Change Over Month –    DOWN   0.1%
  • Rate Change Over Year –    UP   2.7%
  • Rate Change Over Biden Term –    DOWN   0.1%
  • Rate Change Over Trump Term –    UP   1.6%
  • Rate Change Over Obama 2nd Term –    DOWN   3.3%

As indicated above, total unemployment’s rounded percentage of the labor force, or unemployment rate, fell over the month (rate = unemployment / labor force). The labor force is the total number of employed individuals combined with the total number of unemployed individuals actively searching for work. Growth in the labor force can be a sign of a strengthening economy from more people working and/or more individuals searching for jobs. In its struggle to regain ground, the national labor force grew slightly by 50,000 individuals in February 2021, a combination of total employment* rising by 208,000 and total unemployment down by 158,000 individuals as noted above, raising its total to 160,211,000.

As of February 2021, the labor force stood 3.733 million individuals (unemployment -13,137,000 & employment +16,869,000) above its pandemic level low of 156,478,000 in April 2020, after falling by 7.970 million between February and April 2020. However, the February 2021 labor force was 4.237 million individuals (unemployment +4,255,000 & employment -8,493,000) lower than its level of 164,448,000 in February 2020 (near the record high of 164,579,000 in December 2019). National labor force statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Labor Force – 160,211,000
  • Change Over Month –    UP   50,000
  • Change Over Year -    DOWN   4,237,000
  • Change Over Biden Term –   UP    50,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –    UP   545,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –    UP   3,853,000

Over the month, non-farm* jobs grew by 379,000 in February 2021, with total employment rising to 143.048 million. Non-farm jobs have grown in every month since April 2020 with the exception of December 2020. Since hitting a pandemic level low of 130.161 million in April 2020 (following a loss of 22.362 million between February and April 2020), non-farm employment is up by 12.887 million.

As of February 2021, total non-farm employment stood 9.475 million less than its record high level of 152.523 million in February 2020. National non-farm employment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Non-Farm Employment – 143,048,000
  • Change Over Month –    UP   379,000
  • Change Over Year –    DOWN   9,475,000
  • Change Over Biden Term –    UP   379,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   DOWN    2,943,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –    UP   10,349,000

*Total employment for labor force provided by U.S. Census Household survey. The separate BLS Establishment survey measures non-farm jobs only.