Powell meets a changed economy: Fewer workers, higher prices

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FILE - In this Thursday, July 15, 2021, file photo, Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing to examine the Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Powell signaled Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, that the Fed plans to announce as early as November that it will start withdrawing the extraordinary support it unleashed after the coronavirus paralyzed the economy 18 months earlier. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Restaurant and hotel owners struggling to fill jobs. Supply-chain delays forcing up prices for small businesses. Unemployed Americans unable to find work even with job openings at a record high.

Those and other disruptions to the U.S. economy — consequences of the viral pandemic that erupted 18 months ago — appear likely to endure, a group of business owners and nonprofit executives told Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Friday.

The business challenges, described during a “Fed Listens” virtual roundtable, underscore the ways that the COVID-19 outbreak and its delta variant are continuing to transform the U.S. economy. Some participants in the event said their business plans were still evolving. Others complained of sluggish sales and fluctuating fortunes after the pandemic eased this summer and then intensified in the past two months.

"We are really living in unique times,” Powell said at the end of the discussion. “I’ve never seen these kinds of supply-chain issues, never seen an economy that combines drastic labor shortages with lots of unemployed people. ... So, it’s a very fast changing economy. It’s going to be quite different from the one (before).”

The Fed chair asked Cheetie Kumar, a restaurant owner in Raleigh, North Carolina, why she has had such trouble finding workers. Powell's question goes to the heart of the Fed's mandate of maximizing employment, because many people who were working before the pandemic lost jobs and are no longer looking for one. When — or whether — these people resume their job hunts will help determine when the Fed can conclude that the economy has achieved maximum employment.

Kumar told Powell that many of her former employees have decided to permanently leave the restaurant industry.

“I think a lot of people wanted to make life changes, and we lost a lot of people to different industries," she said. “I think half of our folks decided to go back to school.”

Kumar said her restaurant now pays a minimum of $18 an hour, and she added that higher wages are likely a long-term change for the restaurant industry.

“We cannot get by and pay people $13 an hour and expect them to stay with us for years and years,” Kumar said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Loren Nalewanski, a vice president at Marriott Select Brands, said his company is losing facing similar challenges, as many former employees, particularly housekeepers, have left for other jobs that have recently raised pay. Even the recent cutoff of a $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement, he said, hasn't led to an increase in job applicants.

“People have left the industry and unfortunately they’re finding other things to do,” Nalewanski said. “Other industries that didn’t pay as much perhaps ... are (now) paying a lot more.”

Jill Rizika, president of Towards Employment, a workforce development nonprofit in Cleveland, said she sees the striking disconnect every day between companies that are posting millions of job openings and people who are struggling to find work and escape poverty. About 60% of the people her organization helps find jobs have criminal records, she said, and 65% have only high school diplomas. Many parents, particularly mothers, are still unable to return to full-time work.

“They have tried to work but because of outbreaks, children are being sent home from day care or school, making their schedules impossible to manage,” Rizika said. “Or the digital divide intervenes: A young mother tried remote work but didn’t have sufficient broadband to make it work.”

Small businesses are also grappling with rising costs, with little relief in sight, some participants said. The Fed has accelerated its plans to begin pulling back on its low-interest-rate policies, in part because of concerns about rising inflation.

Larry Andrews, president of Massachusetts Growth Capital, a state agency that supports small businesses, said that on a recent tour of the state, one café owner told him that a case of eggs had skyrocketed in price since the pandemic hit. Another restaurant owner said that a jug of cooking oil had risen from $17 to $50 — “if you can get it.”

“The speed and intensity of this downturn — and the rapidity of the recovery in many areas — are without modern precedent,” Powell said in prepared remarks at the start of the event. “Business plans have been reworked, outlooks have been revised and the future continues to be tinged with uncertainty.”

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