Lehigh Valley Has High Percentage of Essential Jobs That Cannot Be Done At Home

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on April 7, 2020

Lehigh Valley is in the top ten of metropolitan areas in the United States with the highest percentage of its workforce employed outside the home in industrial centers, health care facilities and other parts of the economy deemed essential during the coronavirus quarantine.

More than 125,000 workers in the Lehigh Valley are in “exposed jobs” during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a recent research report by Apartment List. Exposed jobs, such as nurses and grocery store workers, are those deemed essential to the current economy by the federal government but cannot be done from home.

That definition fits 38.7% of Lehigh Valley’s workforce, the report says.

Just nine of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States had a larger percentage of its workforce employed in exposed jobs. Bakersfield, Calif., had the most exposed jobs at 49%. Lancaster, Pa., a similar size to Lehigh Valley’s area, came in at 37.9% of its workforce employed in exposed jobs.

“We’ve known the Lehigh Valley is an industrial center of critical importance to the economy of the United States and the East Coast and this crisis only amplifies that,” said Don Cunningham, President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC). “Our industrial and manufacturing base combined with health care being the largest employer in Lehigh Valley has resulted in a much larger portion of our workforce still engaged on the front lines than other markets during this crisis.”

The findings highlight the prominence of essential business, such as hospitals, manufacturers, and fulfillment centers, in Lehigh Valley. The health care and social service sector employs 60,522 people in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Transportation and warehousing sector employs 32,294 people and manufacturing 35,112.

The March 26 report by Apartment List, a leading source of U.S. rental market information, was based on federal guidelines. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has issued his own directive to shut down in-person business for industries deemed “non-life-sustaining.”

Much of the two lists are consistent, but there are some exceptions. For example, construction jobs are listed as essential in the research report but only as “life-sustaining” for emergency repairs under Wolf’s order. In addition, non-life-sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania had until April 3 to file for an exemption to Wolf’s order so they could conduct business in person.

While the report does not account for local restrictions, it reinforces the conclusions of several studies that indicate a large part of the workforce is needed on the front lines even under statewide stay-at-home orders.

To protect those workers, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine signed an April 5 order requiring cleaning and other safety measures at the workplace.

“Organizations really need to recognize and respect that we’re living in a different world,” said Dr. Timothy J. Friel, chair of the Department of Medicine Infectious Diseases at Lehigh Valley Health Network. “We have to modify standards and operations to ensure the continued ability to function and keep staff safe.”

Friel and Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, infectious disease specialist and Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs at St. Luke’s University Health Network, called on essential workers to be vigilant about handwashing, and maintaining a social distance of at least six feet.

“When social distancing is not possible, masking may help prevent the inadvertent spreading of COVID-19 by asymptomatic infected people,” Jahre said. “Public health officials are now advising that the general public should consider masking during certain interpersonal interactions for the same reason. Of course, anyone who begins to show symptoms should stay home from work and consult a physician.”

The share of exposed jobs was just one factor Rentonomics, a research group within Apartment List, studied as part of a larger look at the quarantine economy.

As the coronavirus spread across the economy, elected leaders began restricting in-person business to slow down infections and not overwhelm hospitals. The orders remade the face of the workplace overnight and effectively shut down certain parts of the economy.

In Pennsylvania, 406,000 people filed for unemployment last week alone. The Congressional Budget Office released a preliminary forecast April 2 that predicts in the second quarter the Gross Domestic Product will decline by 7% and unemployment will exceed 10%.

“Many of those who can do their jobs from home are facing relatively little disruption. These tend to be white-collar, knowledge workers at the higher end of the income distribution,” said Apartment List housing economist Chris Salviati, who authored the quarantine economy report with research associate Rob Warnock. “Occupations that can’t be performed remotely tend to have lower incomes and fewer benefits, including health coverage.”

High risk jobs – those that are not essential to the economy in the pandemic and can’t be done from home – account for 11.4% of Lehigh Valley’s workforce, according to the report. Lehigh Valley ranked No. 52 in Apartment List’s ranking of 100 areas. The areas hit the hardest are destination spots like Orlando and Las Vegas.

The report also listed 33.7% of occupations as “secure” in Lehigh Valley. Those include workers, such as tax preparers, who are essential and can do their work remotely. About 16.2% of Lehigh Valley’s workforce is considered to hold low-risk jobs, those that can be done remotely but whose future was uncertain if the economic downturn continues.

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