The global pandemic has negatively impacted just about everyone, not least of all those who hold jobs.

Workers have seen stress skyrocket as they try to make a living during the global health crisis. From working parents juggling time at home to help children keep up with online schooling to some service workers getting laid off while others continue apace under the daily threat of contracting the coronavirus, the struggle is real.

FIU’s Center for Labor Research & Studies has just released its annual report, “The State of Working Florida,” which focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Florida economy. The third most populous U.S. state has seen more than 3.2 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 44,000 related deaths since March 2020.

Eye-popping statistics in the report paint a tenuous picture around employment and tell a story of deepening inequity. More than 151,000 workers, when compared with pre-pandemic levels, have yet to jump back into Florida’s workforce as of July 2021. And currently, Florida employers are showing a deficit of 331,150 workers.

Another key finding: unevenness in both losses and recovery among various demographic groups. Black and Latino workers, for example, have experienced greater increases in unemployment rates than their white counterparts. 

In a seeming paradox, many of the workers forced out of the labor market during the initial year of the pandemic — thousands of retail and restaurant workers saw their places of business permanently shuttered, for example, and some parents quit jobs to tend to young children when childcare dried up — have yet to return to an employment landscape rife with vacancies.

The disjointed numbers have many employers and observers decrying expanded and extended unemployment benefits as the reason folks aren’t pursuing jobs.

Maria Ilcheva is the assistant director of FIU’s Metropolitan Center, an applied research center that tracks ebbs and flows through an online COVID-19 Economic Recovery Index. Ilcheva believes that hesitancy to reenter the job market correlates not so much with availability of government assistance but with the persistence of the coronavirus.

“A lot of people are not taking jobs or not even seeking jobs because they’re waiting to see what will happen with the rate of infections,” she says. “It’s about safety. It’s about preservation of life. If those concerns are not addressed, people will not even think about looking for a job.”

While workers in some professions have found flexibility in how and where they work — many opting to set up home offices and connect virtually with coworkers and clients — those in other areas don’t have the “luxury” of such a choice, Ilcheva explains.

“The most severely impacted workers, and households who have these workers, are the ones employed in the service sector,” she says. “Those customer-interaction jobs, the ones that require face-to-face interactions rather than virtual, they’re the ones who suffered.”

Such workers have typically found themselves in the line of fire with little option to escape their physical workplaces. Ilcheva cites her hotel-manager sister, one of thousands of workers toiling in the state’s critical hospitality and tourism industry, which the labor center reports has achieved around 83% of is of its pre-COVID capacity.

Judith Bernier, director of the labor center, points anecdotally to changes in perceptions of work and workers that have taken place over the past 18 months.

“The pandemic was able to really peel back the layers of who is a worker and who is essential,” Bernier says. While first responders and medical personnel have typically topped the list, for example, folks such as grocery store workers now land there too.

Another shift Bernier has noticed: a complete obliteration of the line between work time and personal time. She notes that many who work from home report working longer hours or never fully disconnecting from the job. Instead of a traditional 9 to 5 schedule, 24/7 connectivity has become the norm.

“It becomes this long day of work,” says Bernier, who herself attests to the experience of round-the-clock attention to professional duties since the start of the pandemic, “because mentally we do not have any boundaries when work life ends and home life begins.”

As for near-term economic improvement, Ilcheva foresee better times ahead as more people rejoin the workforce, possibly in the last quarter of the year — but only if society acts collectively to stem the virus as the delta variant spreads.

“That’s the underlying issue here. The health crisis precipitated what’s happening in the economic realm. We definitely need to improve vaccination rates, and people need to take precautions. That’s the way for that uncertainty to diminish.”

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