Nationwide, employers are being mandated to close their businesses, leaving many Americans unemployed — including those in the Lehigh Valley.
In the Lehigh Valley in March alone, 28,411 unemployment claims were filed, said Nancy Dischinat, the executive director of Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board. In March 2019, the number of unemployment claims was 1,603, she said.
Dischinat said the biggest question concerning unemployment is centered on unemployment compensation. She said common questions include how to file for unemployment, if you are eligible, how to access other financial assistance and where to receive direction.
Dischinat said careerlinklehighvelley.org includes many answers to these questions and is updated frequently as new information becomes available.
She said she wants people to know there are still places hiring workers, despite the current economic situation.
“The hiring process is changing due to the pandemic and social distancing,” Dischinat said. “Employers are reinventing ways to incorporate pandemic-related guidelines and social distancing. They are using job portals and PA CareerLink Lehigh Valley, virtual interviews, virtual job fairs and phone/social media-driven interviews. You may be able to be cleared for a job before you get to the job site.”
Dischinat said retail trade and accommodation and food services have been the most heavily impacted sectors, which make up 10.7 percent and 8.4 percent of employment in the Lehigh Valley, respectively. Manufacturing, which makes up 10.8 percent of the Lehigh Valley workforce, has also been impacted since some factories cannot operate at this time.
Mack Trucks Inc., one of the top 10 employers in the Lehigh Valley, is amongst the manufacturers that have been deemed “non-essential” by state officials. Production was suspended on March 19 and will remain so through at least April 17, said Chris Heffner, a Mack spokesman, in an email.
“Moving forward, we will monitor the situation and communicate additional decisions to our employees on a regular basis,” Heffner said in the email. “The health and safety of our employees and communities continues to be our primary concern as we work to make the most informed decisions we can during this uncertain time.”
Small businesses have also been hit by the pandemic. Dischinat said the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce has been serving as an intermediary by keeping the Workforce Board Lehigh Valley informed of what services individual employers need.
The Downtown Bethlehem Association (DBA) is a council of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. The manager of the DBA, Tammy Wendling, said they have been working hard to promote small, local businesses and try to find solutions for them in this difficult time.
The DBA hosted their own live version of Family Feud, which they called “Downtown Bethlehem Duel,” on the Heart of Bethlehem Facebook page on April 5. The players of the game included Bethlehem merchants and restaurant owners. A second Duel was scheduled for April 12.
Domaci, a home goods and furniture store located in Bethlehem’s SouthSide Arts District, was one of the businesses that participated in the event.
Since Domaci’s storefront closed about a month ago, they have been operating online and are still able to deliver, said Warren Clark, an owner of Domaci. They have been offering digital gift cards, quarantine survival boxes and birthday boxes through their website. A designer on the Domaci staff is able to offer clients free virtual consults remotely.
Clark said it has been difficult for local retail, since they have had to quickly adapt their business models, but the overall reaction has been positive.
“The community’s response has been tremendous,” Clark said.”There’s a lot of support for local businesses.”
Wendling said while the Chamber has worked to provide grant money to downtown businesses, Domaci continues to hold fundraising events remotely.
Live-streamed events like the Downtown Bethlehem Duel allows the DBA to collect donations from viewers, which they will distribute to local businesses. It also gives businesses owners a chance to introduce themselves and address members of the Lehigh Valley, Wendling said.
“It enhanced what our mission is about and truly showed people that we are in this together, and we are such a strong association, and we are not leaving anyone behind,” Wendling said. “We’re going to work together and help everyone out the best we can. There are so many government-funded programs and so many different loans that they can apply for, that do have some forgiveness to them.”