Governor Charlie Baker’s decision on Tuesday to close all non-essential businesses was the latest blow to the state’s economy, as many tens of thousands of Massachusetts workers now face unemployment due to restrictions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in spite of these unprecedented measures, a subset of businesses scrambling to meet the demands of the new outbreak-driven economy are offering a surprising counter-narrative: They’re hiring.
Amazon is recruiting 100,000 warehouse workers to handle a surge in online orders nationwide. Domino’s Pizza is bringing on 500 new drivers in Greater Boston to meet delivery demands. Walmart is looking to hire 1,900 new associates in the state, while CVS is hoping to fill over 50,000 positions across the country, including 2,500 locally, and it plans to hire those workers within 24 hours from the time they apply.
Meanwhile, supermarkets are bumping up pay and benefits for those willing to restock shelves and handle anxious shoppers. Liquor stores are bringing on new team members as shoppers stock up on booze. And health care staffing firms say they can’t keep up with the demand for nurses, respiratory therapists, and other caregivers, and are offering the equivalent of combat pay to bring on workers willing to meet the coronavirus challenge head-on.
Ironically, the surge in unemployment — in just five days last week, the state received twice as many new unemployment claims as were filed during the entire worst month of the Great Recession, totaling 147,995 — has led the state’s unemployment office to enlarge its workforce. The caseload has gotten so pressing that the Department of Unemployment Assistance is now exploring the possibility of temporarily contracting with remote call-center vendors to help until everyone gets a callback.
“It’s a wild time,” said Art Papas, the chief executive of Bullhorn, a Boston software firm that serves the staffing industry. Papas has been closely tracking the spread of the outbreak, and said he anticipated the pandemic would cut job activity among his users in half. But now he’s seeing an uptick in demand for workers in factories that serve the food and drug supply chains, for home delivery drivers for supermarkets and restaurants, and for tech employees at sites like Netflix and Amazon, which are trying to keep up with the streaming and shopping needs of a housebound populace.
But all of that pales in comparison to the demand he’s seeing for workers able to respond directly to the crisis.
“Companies which are focused on health care," he said. "They’re absolutely crushed right now.”
Bill Murray, who heads the Londonderry, N.H., office of MAS Medical Staffing, said high demand for nurses has “always been a struggle," but things have become far more dire as the pandemic has spread. In some cases, he said, nurses brought into the region from other states are being quarantined for 14 days before starting assignments at nursing homes. And the “crisis rate” of pay for nurses who are being recruited to work at hospitals in the Boston are has surged — up from $70 to about $130 an hour paid to the agency, as staffing demands at area hospitals are doubling.
“As a staffing agency, we’re putting people right in the fire," he said, noting that the company pays its nurses if they’re quarantined. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of our candidates.”
The biggest challenge many companies face is hiring both quickly and safely. This is making remote recruiting “the new normal,” said Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer at the iCIMS staffing firm, whose recruiting tools are used by the City of Boston and organizations like 7-Eleven and Rite-Aid. Vitale said the company is currently working with organizations who are hoping to redeploy laid-off workers and line them up with jobs at Amazon, Home Depot, Walmart, and other companies that are staffing up.
Organizations that depend on international call centers to provide customer support are also scrambling to find workers domestically and are increasingly looking to bring on employees who can make calls from the safety of their homes, said Rick Bloom, chief executive of Support.com, a publicly traded company that provides remote technology support for customers like Target and Comcast. He said he’s been fielding calls from clients who have sent workers home from overcrowded call centers and are looking for an alternative way of doing business.
“At the exact same time the demand for consumer support and service around technology is skyrocketing, the ability for those organizations to help is plummeting,” he said. “Many companies are now recognizing the value of a US-based workforce and a remote workforce that has the scalability.”
But not all jobs can be done virtually.
David Jenks, who owns 30 Boston-area Domino’s franchises, said he’s hoping to bring on 60 new hires to help with pizza deliveries as customers demand more take-out orders. “We want to make sure that our service levels remain strong,” he wrote via e-mail. “We’re also looking to help out those who may have lost their job and who are looking to find a way to put food on the table.” He said contactless delivery and carryout options keep both customers and drivers safe, and noted that the company plans to train its new hires while using social distancing.
James Kleeberger, the general manager at Total Wine in Everett, is also looking to tap into the pool of unemployed restaurant workers, particularly if they have a knowledge of wine and can help respond to a flood of customers who have been pouring into his stores. He said he’s brought on a dozen new staffers since the overall business slowdown first started in Massachusetts.
The process has been remarkably quick, he said. “We’re interviewing people and hiring them on the spot.”