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With unemployment benefits ending, don't expect Michigan labor market to bounce back quickly

Posted at 3:17 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 15:17:58-04

(WSYM) — Building back a workforce as unemployment benefits come to an end this week will be a goal of countless Michigan businesses. But just how quickly could it happen and what obstacles remain?

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As things quiet down after a lunchtime rush at Dodge Park Coney Island, the owner tells us he’s become accustomed to staying busy with fewer staff.

Inside the restaurant's kitchen, there’s pride and purpose behind every meal.

Cooking plate after plate for hungry customers come is owner Pashko Ujkaj, who says finding help isn’t always easy, and he’s not convinced of a big change once unemployment benefits stop.

Pashko Ujkaj, owner, Dodge Park Coney Island
Pashko Ujkaj, owner, Dodge Park Coney Island

“I don’t believe that’s going to be the case, I want it to be the case. We are running, for example, the job of three with two. We could use more help in the kitchen, as you saw me sweating earlier,” said Ujkaj.

For nearly two decades, he’s kept much of the same staff and through COVID-19 he’s continued raising pay while many other businesses have seen workers leave and not return.

“Each position in this industry is getting 30-40% more than that position paid before COVID," said Ujkaj.

Professor Michael Greiner teaches economics at Oakland University and predicts it's unlikely to see a wave of workers returning soon.

Professor Michael Greiner, Professor of Economics at Oakland University
Professor Michael Greiner, Professor of Economics at Oakland University

“A lot of people have basically said, 'hey since I’m off work now, I’ll start some type of consulting gig or do something on my own rather than return to a job that hasn’t been reliable in the past,'" said Greiner.

He agrees raising wages and offering better hours to attract more workers could make some difference but says the labor market simply won’t reset to the point of two years ago and will have to adapt to new conditions.

“Productivity has gone up and a lot more is done virtually. At the same time, people have expanded their skill sets ... and they may be looking for jobs that are different than the jobs they left before," said Greiner.

Tracking trends for Michigan businesses is the CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Rich Studley, CEO, Michigan Chamber of Commerce
Rich Studley, CEO, Michigan Chamber of Commerce

“We are anticipating the extra state and federal unemployment benefits will expire Sept. 4th. Twenty-Five or 26 others have already stopped in the $300/week,” said Rich Studley. “It’s time for the state and federal government to stop paying Michiganders not to work.”

Rich Studley says representing more than a million people in Michigan, he is still optimistic more help-wanted notices will be answered soon despite other factors.

"They have openings paying $17, $18 and $19 an hour and have few if any applicants. I don’t think it’ll be a quick fix or silver bullet, but going into end of summer or early fall, it should be very helpful,” said Studley.

Pashko Ujkaj, Dodge Park Coney
Pashko Ujkaj, Dodge Park Coney Island

"You’ve got to give people peace of mind that it’s OK to go out and get a job, and go back to normal,” said Ujkaj.

He says being open seven days a week has been a challenge at times, but he plans to continue doing so to keep accommodating his loyal customers.