The return to the workforce is at the behest of the worker — rank-and-file, blue-collar, elite, creative — and the onus is on the employer to garner support in hopes of securing and retaining a post-COVID-19 workforce.

In a letter to Gov. Andy Beshear, Ashli Watts, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, explained unemployment insurance benefits are staggering the workforce participation.

“Ending our participation in FPUC [Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation] would support Kentucky’s economic recovery and help address the serious workforce shortage Kentucky employers have been facing throughout the past several months,” Watts said.

Watts urged Beshear to end FPUC before the scheduled Sept. 6, 2021 termination date.

“The causes of the workforce shortage currently faced by Kentucky employers are many, including child care, elder care, retraining and re-skilling, professional licensing, early retirements, and continued concerns about the virus,” Watts said.

Watts explored incentives that may amplify workforce participation.

“Important steps must also be taken to increase access to high-quality child care, retrain and re-skill workers, and increase vaccination rates. We also believe that return-to-work incentives, which other states have implemented, are worth exploring, particularly incentives that assist working parents to afford and have access to child care.”

Watts called on Beshear to act on the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s and affiliated business owners’ demands to end FPUC in mid-July — Watts referenced 23 states have made the motion already, including Indiana, Tennessee and Missouri.

Meeting the rising demands of the workforce will take innovative recruiting practices and requires non-traditional labor participation.

Amanda Davenport, executive director of the Lake Barkley Partnership, said second-chance employment and immigrant recruitment are solutions worth exploring.

Traditionally, persons with criminal records have been unjustly excluded from normal job opportunities, but re-entry programs and resources uplift and empower this population. Examples include legislation advocating for identification cards upon returning to the workforce.

Employers — to a certain degree — work with second-chance job seekers to secure employment. Therefore, carving out accessible employment opportunities will benefit both employers and job seekers.

Davenport said the establishment of dynamic workforce and talent pipelines provides renewable and reliable labor sources that are advantageous for students, migrants, the elderly population, and other labor participants as well as employers willing to hire.

“Before COVID-19, we were nearly at full-employment, and we were having talks about building the workforce pipeline,” Davenport said. “On the employee end, I have heard from all of our businesses the concern of the unemployment insurance, but what we haven’t heard, is what the barriers to employment are.”

As stated within Watts’ letter to Beshear, childcare is a first-rate employment barrier, expressed and detailed in the Pennyrile Allied Community Services Inc. Community Needs Assessment Survey and the West Kentucky Workforce Board, WKWB, WIOA Regional Innovation and Local Comprehensive Plan.

WKWB Executive Director Sheila Clark said, “We have a different workforce that is coming back into the workplace. We’re seeing a lifestyle that they want to incorporate into their working life that wasn’t there before.”

These shifts in work culture, job benefits, and compensation requirements have exacerbated workforce participation rates.

Clark said impacted businesses are forced to change business hours because of the lack of available labor; however, business operations shutting down on a large scale are seldom.

Clark noted that despite wage increases and bonuses, workers are taking a substantial amount of time to decide when and how they want to fill job vacancies.

The lifts in COVID-19 restrictions have allowed job fairs to be scheduled — the first large in-person job fair is being hosted at the Bruce Convention Center in Hopkinsville on June 17.