Earlier this month, as online shopping surged in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, Amazon announced that it would hire 100,000 new workers and raise the pay of its current delivery workforce. Amazon is far from alone. Across the country, in industries ranging from delivery services to grocery stores, from pharmacies and makers of medical products to online-learning companies and cleaning services, businesses are scrambling for workers amid the rapidly changing demands of a society responding to the pandemic. Even as state unemployment offices face a deluge of new claims from workers laid off from businesses sidelined by government restrictions on economic activity, these expanding firms are hiring hundreds of thousands of new workers, many for positions that require no previous experience—offering a glimmer of hope to those looking to get back to work as soon as possible.

The extent of this hiring can be glimpsed at state job portals that compile and advertise these rapidly emerging new positions. The New Jersey State Department of Labor has launched a site listing jobs at companies expanding their workforces. The portal contains listings from hundreds of companies hiring in the Garden State. In New Jersey, where Amazon has 14 facilities, the online giant, which already employs 800,000 people in the U.S., is looking to add 3,400 new workers. Walmart, which has sought to match the growth of Amazon in online ordering and delivery, is looking to add 150,000 workers nationwide. It’s seeking to hire 1,000 workers in the Garden State in stores and at distribution centers. The drugstore giant CVS, with stores in 40 states, is adding 50,000 workers, including some laid off from hotel chains like Marriot and Hilton. The company has 1,100 job openings in New Jersey alone. It’s looking for everything from store workers to delivery drivers and warehouse employees and is holding “virtual job fairs.”

Plenty of local companies are also in the market for new employees. One of New Jersey’s largest grocery chains, ShopRite, with 145 locations around the state, is looking for 1,500 new workers. Another major grocery chain, Acme, has 1,450 positions open. Similar expansions are happening around the country. The nation’s largest grocery chain, Kroger, has already hired 2,000 people due to increased demand. It has 10,000 openings across the country for people who work in stores, distribution centers, and warehouses. In some places, Kroger, which employs 460,000 people overall, is directing its hiring efforts at workers laid off from other businesses.

The crisis is accelerating the growth of businesses that utilize high-tech systems to provide everyday services. One of these is Instacart, a seven-year-old company that partners with supermarket chains to provide online ordering and at-home delivery of groceries, which are picked off store shelves and transported to homes by the company’s “personal shoppers.” Instacart already operates in all 50 states, delivering products purchased in 350 national and local chains; it has recruited part-time workers by offering flexible schedules and the chance to earn around $15 an hour without extensive employment experience. One can qualify simply by being able to shop at a store and having access to a car. The company is seeking 350,000 more personal shoppers around the country. In New Jersey alone, it plans to add about 12,000 shopping jobs.

Someone must make the products that these online sellers are scrambling to deliver. PepsiCo employs 90,000 people in its North American plants, which produce everything from soda to Lay’s potato chips to Tropicana orange juice. The soda company is adding 6,000 full-time workers—with full benefits—to its job rolls. Medical suppliers are also ramping up. GE Healthcare, whose product line includes desperately sought-after respirators and other essential devices like mobile X-ray systems and patient monitors, is adding shifts to its production cycle and looking for workers in dozens of specialized capacities. Some companies are shifting to making needed products and hiring to boost production. INKSmith, which principally makes tech products for kids, 3-D printers, and virtual-reality headsets, has hired 100 new workers and is now making the face shields that health-care workers use. Other companies are avoiding a shutdown by switching to essential products. Bednark Studios, a Brooklyn company that produced retail display fixtures, has moved to assembling face shields, too. The company is calling back laid-off workers and looking to employ out-of-work restaurant and bar staffers.

Some firms that thought of themselves as the future of their industry are seeing that future come hurtling forward. With enrollment in online courses soaring, Outschool, which offers 10,000 video-assisted classes from preschool through high school, is looking to hire 5,000 new teachers; instructors don’t need teaching certification. Outschool hires based on an individual’s work expertise and pays up to $40 an hour. Of course, employees get to work from home.

All this comes as unemployment claims surge around the country in an unprecedented setting, wherein layoffs are being driven not by a downturn in the economic cycle—which usually transpires gradually—but rather by a sudden, sharp closing down of the economy. Nearly 3.3 million people nationally filed for unemployment the week ending March 21, a record. Among the categories of workers filing the most claims were restaurant and bar employees and workers at personal-service firms like haircutters, salon workers, and dry cleaners. The federal government has stepped up to help by offering federal payments of up to $600 per week for each laid-off worker. That subsidy would add to what states already pay the unemployed.

These benefits, which can go above $1,000 a week in some states, will be a welcome relief to those out of work, but they may also be a disincentive to some of those laid off to get back into the workforce—and may consequently make it more difficult for firms trying to scale up hiring to find the people they need. After the 2008–2009 recession, Congress extended unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks—or four times the normal length of the program. Studies estimated that those extra benefits hampered the recovery, and that without them, the unemployment rate would have dropped faster. Some policymakers are worried that something similar will happen this time, especially since, with the enhanced benefits, many out-of-work employees may take home more than they received while working. “When this crisis is over, we want everyone to go back into the workforce and we should not be creating a perverse incentive not to work,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida said, after voting for the stimulus bill that included the enhanced benefits.

Avoiding a similar outcome this time will require Congress to keep a close eye on the recovery that’s likely to begin quickly after we get the virus under control and people begin heading back to work. Before the sudden shutdowns, the country’s jobless rate was a mere 3.5 percent, the lowest in 50 years. Companies like Amazon, Outschool, and others, rushing to hire, are betting that we’re heading back there again quickly.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


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