If you want a sense of what six months of COVID-19 have done to the Seattle-area job market, ask Amy Fenning.

Last year, the former college administrator decided she wanted to be an elementary school teacher and is currently finishing her training in the Renton School District. 

But thanks to the pandemic, Fenning has no idea when or where any teaching jobs will be available. So she’s hedging her bets and keeping the cashier job she took this summer at Target, where work is so plentiful she often has to turn down shifts. “They are always busy and always hiring,” says Fenning. “These are just strange times to be looking for work.”

Fenning’s two-track job search is emblematic of a local labor market unlike anything in recent memory.

Overall, unemployment in Washington state remains painfully high: 8.5% as of August, with nearly 340,000 people still out of work. New jobless claims are continuing at triple their pre-pandemic levels, and in some sectors, including hotels, restaurants, travel, and arts and entertainment, layoffs and closures have been so severe it may take years for employment to fully recover.

“Realistically, we’re not expecting to have our jobs back in any sense until next year at the earliest,” says Zachary Burns, 31, of Kirkland, who lost his sound-engineering job at a local dinner theater in March. 

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And yet, even as some job sectors remain in free fall, others are not only already bouncing back, but, in some cases, can’t hire enough people — a situation many experts weren’t expecting amid the sharpest economic downturn in recent history.

“When unemployment rates are this high, you should have a significant number of people coming through the door to look for jobs,” says Dawn Colston, who manages the western U.S. and Canada for Express Employment Professionals, a recruiting and staffing franchise. Instead, Colston says, job openings at many firms her company works with are staying open roughly 70% longer now than they were a year ago.  

That’s certainly the story in the state’s perennially short-staffed tech sector. Thanks partly to the rise in working from home and remote learning during the pandemic, workers with skills in tech support, network administration and online security, among others, are in especially high demand — and, often, in short supply — says Megan Slabinski, a district president with the Seattle office of staffing firm Robert Half.

Firms in other office-based sectors, such as finance and accounting, where working from home has become more common, are also scrambling to hire.

Josh Wong, a director at the Seattle office of CVPartners, a placement firm specializing in finance, accounting, audit and tax jobs, says postings for Seattle-area accounting and finance jobs are up around 50% compared to the spring — and certain postings are taking longer to fill. The last two months in particular, he says, have seen “a very, very fast turnaround.”

Work-from-home office jobs aren’t the only ones in demand. Businesses across the state needing in-person workers, including grocery stores, pharmacies, delivery and warehouse companies and some light manufacturing firms, are also struggling to hire fast enough.

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Even in the food-service sector, which saw some of the worst pandemic-related job losses, some employers are hard pressed to maintain staffing levels. 

Chris Tonkin, co-president of Taco Time Northwest, says the chain is understaffed at some locations. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Chris Tonkin, co-president of Taco Time Northwest, says the chain is understaffed at some locations. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

At Taco Time Northwest, which owns or operates dozens of Puget Sound locations, some outlets are so thinly staffed that they may close early if an employee calls in sick, says company co-president Chris Tonkin. “We definitely would like to hire some people right now,” says Tonkin.

Why is hiring so challenging at a moment of such high unemployment?

One factor is uncertainty. In higher-paying sectors, recruiters say, workers who would normally jump at the chance to move to a Seattle-area firm worry about changing jobs in such an unpredictable economy. The fear: If the employer runs into trouble or rethinks its recovery strategy, the new employee is “potentially last in, first out,” Slabinski says.

Another hiring obstacle: conflicting financial incentives. Some recruiters say that the generous emergency unemployment benefits — notably the extra $600-a-week federal payment that workers received on top of regular state benefits — discouraged jobless workers from returning to work, especially in lower-wage and entry-level positions. 

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But the $600 federal benefit expired at the end of July, and many employers are still struggling to fill positions. (A new federal payment of $300 a week will soon be available to many unemployed workers but will last only six weeks in Washington.)

After the $600 weekly payment stopped, “I kind of expected there to be more people knocking on our door to come back, but that’s not exactly the case,” says Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell, who has delayed reopening several restaurants due to staffing challenges.

Instead, many unemployed workers are now staying out of the job market for other, often nonfinancial reasons, recruiters and employers say.

One is fear of COVID-19 in the workplace or during a commute on public transit. Some workers may be holding out for jobs “close to home,” says Judy Faast, director of education, employment and financial capability at Hopelink, a Redmond-based nonprofit focused on poverty.

Other workers are delaying returning to work because they need to help their children with remote schooling or because they don’t have other child-care options.

Still others worry about coming back to jobs that could disappear again this fall or winter if a surge in COVID-19 cases leads to more restrictions on businesses.

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Many of those workers are “having to decide, ‘OK, do I want to … stick around and wait for the industry [to recover or ] do I want to move into another industry?'” says John Glynn, a manager with the WorkSource Seattle-King County Business Team, a taxpayer-funded program that assists dislocated workers and employers looking for workers.

That was the dilemma for Julie Murphy, a Lynnwood resident who has worked in manufacturing on and off since the 1990s and was laid off by a Boeing supplier in early March.

Unable to find a new manufacturing job in the months since, the 53-year-old decided to “to steer away from aerospace” altogether. Instead, Murphy says, she plans to enroll in a certification program for supply chain management at Shoreline Community College.

The pandemic job market is forcing employers to make changes as well.

Although it’s not yet clear whether they will need to raise wages to fill open positions, many are already offering hiring, retention and performance bonuses as well as other incentives. Taco Time Northwest, for example, is giving each employee $120 a week toward Taco Time meals for workers and their families, and is offering flexible scheduling for employees dealing with schooling or child-care issues, Tonkin says.

Other employers are taking more dramatic steps.

Slabinski, the Robert Half district president, says some local employers are more willing to let new hires work remotely and avoid moving to the Seattle area. In the last three months especially, she says, “we’ve seen more and more companies willing to look at talent outside of the market.”

Whether that becomes the new norm after the pandemic isn’t clear. After the Great Recession, temporary measures, such as a greater reliance on contractors over full-time employees, were adopted permanently by many employers. Some recruiters think the same could happen with pandemic-related hiring strategies. Among many employers today, Slabinski says, “we’re seeing the light bulb go off — ‘Hey, I could find somebody anywhere.'”