In his job as a pianist and music director, Scott Williams used to routinely play in front of hundreds of people.
But that changed abruptly in mid-March, when live-event venues statewide – as well as all other non-essential businesses -- were closed by Gov. Tom Wolf in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“Now I play for an audience of one – my cat,” Williams said.
Williams was in the pit orchestra for the Fulton Theatre’s production of “Kinky Boots” when the theater and most other businesses across the county were ordered to go dark, shoving him and thousands of other county residents out of their jobs.
Now, eight months later, his industry has barely recovered. The Fulton is staying dark until spring at least. So is the American Music Theatre. The Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, Prima Theatre and Sight & Sound have reopened but only in a limited way.
Williams has looked for jobs in other fields, at a time when hundreds of county firms are seeking help. But as a diabetic 53-year-old “with a bum knee and a bad back,” he’s discovered that many of those opportunities are better suited for someone younger and healthier.
Meanwhile, Williams’ unemployment benefits will run out in mid-December, which will likely put him in the same predicament as thousands of other Lancaster Countians – no unemployment benefits and no job.
And despite slashing his spending in numerous ways, such as switching to cheaper grocery stores and car insurance, nearly eliminating visits to restaurants and canceling his Netflix and Hulu subscriptions, he expects his savings to run out next month too.
“I have enough to live on through the end of the year,” he said. “After that, I literally don’t know.”
7,000 and counting
If Williams is unable to find a suitable job soon, he’ll have plenty of company.
Thousands of countians, like him, got 39 weeks of benefits through the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for freelance (or temporary “gig economy”) workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. It’s not known how many of these countians have exhausted their benefits without finding a job.
But 7,000-plus Lancaster Countians who lost permanent jobs due to COVID-19 have exhausted their unemployment benefits without finding new employment, according to the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board. They too received up to 39 weeks of benefits, including a 13-week extension that took effect this summer.
While the number of jobless countians with exhausted benefits grows every week -- some of a total of 17,600 jobless countians -- about 8,300 available jobs at county employers are going unfilled, the workforce board said.
How can this be?
“There are many COVID-related issues that are unique to why people are choosing to return to the workforce or not,” said Valerie Hatfield, strategic innovation officer for the workforce board.
Obstacles can include health care issues for themselves or family members, and a lack of child care for children who no longer are at school or day care, Hatfield said in an email.
COVID-related issues aren’t the only wild cards, she indicated.
There also are “changes in specific industries, characteristics of those unemployed and a mismatch of skill sets or educational requirements. Underemployment, which is just as dire as unemployment in some situations, seems to be a big piece of why (there are) so many unfilled jobs.”
The changing profile of the typical unemployed person, as tracked by the board, lends credence to those explanations. (See chart for details.) So does a comparison of the available jobs here and the typical countian.
Most jobless people in the county are women; a year ago, most were men. The jobless now are most likely to have worked in the hotel and restaurant industries, which have bounced back only slightly, and more likely to be in the oldest age group (age 55-64) than a year ago.
As local officials wonder why so many jobless people are not rejoining the workforce, the age factor raises several possibilities, Hatfield said.
“Are these people who have been in jobs their entire life and find it very difficult to change careers/industries? Do they not have the skills or more specifically the technology skills needed for today’s jobs? Are they debating whether to retire?” she asked.
Another reason could be the bad fit between the typical available job and the typical countian, Hatfield said. The typical available job offers lower pay and requires less schooling than the typical countian’s desired wages and educational level.
Naomi Young, director of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County’s Center for Regional Analysis, sees some of the same forces behind the extended periods of joblessness.
“Many of the currently unemployed are unable to return to work either because of COVID-induced contractions in business activity, health concerns or limited access to child and/or elderly care,” she wrote recently in her monthly “State of Lancaster County’s Economy” newsletter.
“For example, since the start of the pandemic, women and seniors (65 and older) have had elevated representation among the unemployed. One potentially contributing factor is that they tend make up a larger share of the workforce in the sectors hardest hit by COVID – such as leisure and hospitality, retail, in-person services.
“In contrast, male workers are traditionally more concentrated in sectors that have recovered more quickly, namely construction and manufacturing, or have been least impacted (professional service, transportation and utilities),” Young said.
The rebound of those sectors has trimmed the county’s unemployment rate from a pandemic-fueled 15.2% in April – the worst since the Great Depression – to 6.1% in September, according to the state Department of Labor & Industry. The rate before COVID-19 arrived was 3.6%.
But the characteristics of hard-hit professions sometimes do align with those of short-staffed ones.
For instance, Hatfield said the educational level and skills of a typical waiter/waitress in the decimated restaurant industry are similar to those qualities of retail workers and their supervisors, as well as customer service representatives who are in short supply.
If people are willing and able to get training in the trades, many more doors swing open, she noted.
As one example, county transportation firms need 131 tractor-trailer drivers and 174 truck maintenance workers, according to the county CareerLink office.
CareerLink offers help with job searches, resume writing, skill training (including on-the-job training) and many other job-hunting services, including financial assistance for people enrolling in certain skill training programs. In addition, CareerLink can help employers looking to hire. For more information, visit jobs4lancaster.com.
Williams’ financial predicament worsened in July when the $600-per-week extra unemployment benefit, paid to people idled by the pandemic, ran out. Its expiration left him with just $390 per week in unemployment compensation which soon will run out too.
That has Williams contemplating his options. He could find a new apartment and share expenses with a roommate or two. He could move back in with his ailing elderly parents in Hermitage, Mercer County, on the Ohio border, five hours away. He could take a job outside his profession.
None comes close to his preferred option, Williams acknowledged.
“I want to make a living doing what I do, that I’ve been fighting to do for the last 30 years…,” said Williams, who holds a master’s degree in music from Northern Illinois University.
A Lancaster resident since moving here from Chicago in 2007 to work at the Dutch Apple, Williams called the current drought “the longest period of time that I’ve gone without working” in his career, which is especially painful during the holidays.
At least 25% of his annual income usually comes in November and December, which bring a bounty of freelance performances in normal times.
But there’s more than the financial stress. The emotional stress is sizable as well. Williams credits his network of friends for buoying his spirits.
“We hold onto each other, through video and text and calls. We encourage each other. My community is what holds me together,” he said.
At the same time, Williams has found another way to lift his spirits. He’s serving as music coordinator, music director and pianist for a virtual production of the musical “The Christmas Schooner,” which will be a fundraiser for Chicago-based charity Season of Concern.
Season of Concern, a nonprofit started in 1987 to help theater actors and other theater people (musicians, crew members, dressers, costumers and many others) who are afflicted with HIV/AIDS, now also helps theater practitioners who can no longer work due to injury, illness or circumstance.
Williams, who’s among 80 volunteers involved in the project, is donating hundreds of hours of his time to the endeavor.
“I’m so joyful to get up every day and work,” Williams said. “Nothing else is there (in the way of paid work). I might as well do a project I love.”