It is hard to imagine that March 2022 marks two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been a life-changing experience for us all – and, sadly, a life-ending experience for many. The team at Clackamas Workforce Partnership (CWP) has been reflecting on all that has happened over the last two years: the fear, the challenges, the lessons learned, and the good work done by our team, our partners at WorkSource Clackamas (WSC), and the broader community. Just as it continues to impact the health and safety of people and communities, Covid-19 continues to impact our work and our mission to create a dynamic local workforce, equitable access to opportunity, and economic prosperity for everyone who calls Clackamas County home.
In March 2020, CWP staff transitioned to remote work. Our team is fortunate that we were able to do this at all, and to do it with relative ease. Despite the challenges, we were able to continue working collaboratively with our partners to meet the needs of individuals, employers, and communities in Clackamas County. One resource CWP was able to provide was a bi-lingual Covid-19 Resource Hotline. The hotline was managed by staff from the Oregon Department of Human Service – Self Sufficiency; CTEC Youth Services; Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization; and Clackamas Community College, and allowed Clackamas County residents to call and get information and assistance related to Unemployment Insurance benefits; housing assistance and emergency shelter; eviction prevention resources; food security resources; health and safety resources; and more.
Similarly, workforce system staff made over 900 direct phone calls to individuals receiving Unemployment Insurance and other public benefits, to share information on employment and training related resources, food security, disability resources, healthcare services, and more. One of the greatest benefits these activities provided (aside from connecting people to resources) was to provide people an opportunity to talk with another human, to share their fears and frustrations, and to receive empathy. It allowed people to feel heard in a time of great fear and uncertainty and helped to motivate our staff despite our own fears and sense of overwhelm and despair.
In addition to assisting individuals during the pandemic, CWP was able to provide funds to local businesses and nonprofits to prevent lay-offs and closures, and to cover the cost of face coverings/shields, gloves, and cleaning materials. These emergency funds allowed employers to keep people on their payroll, keep their organization from shuttering, and keep serving their customers and community in a safe manner. Priority funding was given to nonprofit organizations that were led by, served, or were located within historically marginalized communities, and provided services to our county’s most vulnerable populations and those most impacted by the pandemic. Similarly, CWP provided emergency funds to privately owned businesses, prioritizing those owned and operated by Black, Indigenousness, and People of Color (BIPOC); women; LGBTQ+ individuals; immigrants/refugees; people with disabilities; and other historically marginalized populations.
While CWP worked behind the scenes to secure and deliver emergency relief funds, our partners at WorkSource Clackamas (WSC) were working around the clock to continue serving people and employers. This was uniquely challenging since WSC closed to all in-person services and service providers transitioned to remote work. The exception to this was the Oregon Employment Department (OED), whose staff had to quickly be trained on Unemployment Insurance processing. OED staff reported to work each day – in-person – to process people’s benefits as efficiently as possible. Sometimes this meant staff were repeatedly subjected to the anger, frustration, and despair of claimants, bordering on abuse and threats; however, many claimants were grateful to OED staff for their patience, empathy, and continued efforts to serve the public in a time of crisis. Similarly, staff members at ODHS Self-Sufficiency, Vocational Rehabilitation, and Children, Family, and Community Connections continued to serve the public in-person. They also contended with many scared and frustrated individuals in need, and showed incredible resilience and compassion despite the challenges and the health/safety risks.
While the WSC was closed to the public, staff members not processing Unemployment Insurance transitioned to remote work. This was an adjustment for many organizations and individuals. Clackamas Community College; Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization; CTEC Youth Services; Northwest Family Services; Easterseals Oregon; and Job Corps all had to pivot to continue serving county residents while keep their staff teams healthy and safe. Several organizations had to invest in technology, software, and home office supplies in a way that they never had before, as well as create new access points for community members to receive services by phone or digitally.
Some of these changes help to modernize the local workforce system and created more opportunities for innovative service delivery, however, the transition to remote work was not without challenges. Several long-time staff members from multiple organizations retired early, while others faced reduced hours or lay-offs. During this time, CWP and partner organizations had to figure out how to work during massive uncertainty, huge shifts in staffing, and constant changes in health and safety guidelines. This made our work more stressful, but also demonstrated the strength and commitment of our partnerships and our dedication to doing what was needed to continue meeting the needs of Clackamas County.
It is difficult to recount life over the last two years. People’s lives shrank in ways they never imagined, and many people lost loved ones to Covid-19. There is no silver lining to this pandemic, but there are some things that became apparent to many people:
- Social and Economic Inequities: Historically marginalized populations suffered the most throughout the pandemic. Health and safety risks, difficulties in remote schooling, loss of income, housing insecurity, barriers to healthcare, and myriad other circumstances disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; immigrants and refugees; non-native English speakers; women; low-income people; people without college degrees; LGBTQ+ individuals; youth and older workers; the housing insecure; and people with disabilities, among others. These communities were most likely to lose their job, lose their housing, continue working in unsafe conditions, face difficulties with childcare and schooling, and have more difficulty accessing healthcare, Unemployment Insurance, food assistance, and other resources due to structural biases long present in public policies and institutions.
- Job Quality: The pandemic and resulting economic fallout forced people to reevaluate their lives, including the role that work plays. Many people – especially those labeled “essential workers” – were no longer willing to accept work with low-pay and no benefits, or to be treated as expendable and replaceable. Employers also faced a reckoning and many were forced to examine their workplace culture and policies, raise their wages, provide benefits, and be more responsive to their employees.
- Childcare and Women: Women overwhelming exited the workforce due to lack of childcare. With schools going remote and many childcare centers closing due to Covid, this perpetuated a longstanding crisis that has always affected women more than men. The pandemic-related exodus of women from the workforce highlighted the economic need for accessible and affordable childcare, which contributes to gender-based pay inequity, family instability, and developmental deficient in children (that have long-term impacts on them, their families, and society). The pandemic also demonstrated how under-valued childcare and education are as industries, despite their critical role in preparing people to be active and engage workers and citizens. Economic recovery will be impossible without investing in these industries and their workers in real and meaningful ways – all other industries are dependent on these ones.
- Digital Equity and Access: The pandemic revealed the massive digital divide in society. Low-income people and other historically marginalized communities were less likely to have access to stable internet or personal devices needed for digital work or schooling, such as computers, cellphones, etc. This made accessing emergency resources and assistive services (such as Unemployment Insurance, food assistance, housing assistance, etc.) extremely difficult. It also disadvantaged youth and children attempting remote schooling, perpetuating learning loss, school dropout, and generational poverty.
Many other things became apparent due to the pandemic, and the descriptions above fail to capture the magnitude of those issues. CWP will continue working at the local and state level to implement structural change to better address socio-economic inequities, and to meet the needs of people, employers, and communities in Clackamas County. We know this work is hard and never-ending, but there is no alternative – business as usual is no longer tenable. While it may be challenging, we know that anything is possible when people come together as one. We look forward to working with all of Clackamas County to build a better world.