Riddle me this: How is it that the economy is still down almost six million jobs from its peak before the pandemic struck, yet there is a record over 10 million open job positions?

It has arguably never been easier for workers to find jobs, or so difficult for businesses to find the workers they need. What gives, and how long will it continue?

The immediate explanation lies in the rapid reopening of the economy earlier this year as vaccinations became widely distributed and most of us more-or-less stopped sheltering in place. It seemed as if every business in the country hung out a help-wanted sign at the same time, especially in the restaurant, entertainment, and travel industries.

The problem is that it’s been difficult for those who lost jobs early in the pandemic and are now either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether to get back to work. They are not even counted as unemployed.

» READ MORE: Unemployment remains high, yet many businesses say they can’t find enough workers

Top of the list in this group are parents at home taking care of children who have been going to school online. There are almost six million parents in this situation, according to the Census Bureau.

It is critical for schools to reopen for in-person learning in the next few weeks. So far it looks as if they will, but the surging number of infections and hospitalizations caused by the delta variant of COVID-19 is a serious threat. If schools don’t reopen in-person or are forced to send students back home again due to outbreaks, parents will have little choice but to stay home too and not go to work.

Almost five million people say they are home and unable to work because they are either sick from the virus, taking care of someone who is sick, or taking care of elderly parents who in many cases were taken from a nursing facility for fear of the virus. An additional three million-plus people are worried that they might contract COVID-19 or spread it if they go back to work.

Of course, these numbers go up and down with waves of the virus. They are high and rising now given the rapid spread of the delta variant, but ultimately they will wane with the pandemic.

This is one more compelling reason everyone needs to get vaccinated. The longer there are a lot of vaccine holdouts, the longer the pandemic will drag on, and the longer it will take to get people back to work and the economy fully up and running.

Then there are the nearly nine million people who because of the pandemic are temporarily laid off or aren’t working because their employer closed temporarily or is out of business. These workers could take other open positions, but doing so takes time to figure out as workers rearrange their commutes, their work hours, and their child-care needs so they can handle the new job.

Low on the list

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s private round trip to Florida to see her ailing father was paid for from a fund that’s used for travel not covered by tax dollars, her chief of staff said Friday.

The cost was $27,521, with Whitmer personally paying $855 of that amount, according to the Michigan Transition 2019 website, which lists donations and expenses. The nonprofit was initially formed for inauguration events.

The lack of details has dogged Whitmer since the March trip was revealed in April, first reported by Charlie LeDuff on the No BS News Hour podcast.

“As chief of staff, I acknowledge we could have done a better job of answering questions about this trip with more clarity while also balancing the need to protect the governor’s security, and for that I take responsibility,” JoAnne Huls told senior staff in a memo.

Whitmer left Michigan on March 12 and returned on March 15.

“She continued to carry out her duties as governor while she assisted her father with household duties like cooking and cleaning. … The governor’s flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense, and was done in compliance with the law,” Huls said. “The governor paid for her seat on the flight with her own personal money.”

The Associated Press last week confirmed flights to West Palm Beach using aviation-tracking website Flightradar24. The Gulfstream 280 business jet is registered to Air Eagle, whose agent is John Nicholson, executive vice president of Detroit-based PVS Chemicals, according to state records.

The Republican National Committee responded to the report with a terse statement Friday night.

“Gretchen Whitmer’s web of half-truths and side-stepped questions is coming undone and it’s clear that Michiganders need answers. What else is Gretchen Whitmer hiding?” said Preya Samsundar, RNC spokesperson

On May 7, when asked who paid, Whitmer said: “I’ve said everything I’m going to say about my trip to go check on my father. It was a quick trip. It was an important family reason for doing it, and I’ve got nothing to add.”

Less than three weeks after returning from Florida, Whitmer warned the public about traveling over spring break, particularly to that state, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in Michigan. Two of her top aides, health director Elizabeth Hertel and chief operating officer Tricia Foster, still visited beaches in Alabama and Florida over spring break despite state-issued guidance to avoid out-of-state travel.

She said her office does not discuss her travel because of an “incredible number” of death threats. A group of men is charged with plotting to kidnap her over her coronavirus restrictions.

Huls said in a statement:

“Due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we

Ted’s Fish Fry will close its seven locations on Sundays. The reason? It can’t find enough workers.

Candidates “aren’t even coming in,” said one manager. “They’re giving them all the money to stay home,” he said, referring to the $300 supplemental benefits the federal government pays on top of the state’s unemployment benefit check.

In Lake George, “we’ve had some restaurants talk about going to five days a week,” said Gina Mintzer, who heads the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce. “They lack the staff.”

The nation’s economy is coming back to life after more than a year of lockdown. But some of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic were leisure and hospitality, and accommodation and food services. In the five-county Albany metro, the number of jobs in the two sectors were down over the year by 19.2 percent and 20.8 percent, respectively, according to state Labor Department figures. Together, they represent the loss of 13,700 jobs locally.

Nationwide, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday that there were 8.1 million job openings across the country at the end of March, the highest figure in records going back to December 2000.

Early in the pandemic, employers furloughed a large share of the workforce as leisure travel ground to a halt and retail businesses and workplaces closed their doors. There were few jobs to be had, and people who weren’t in essential occupations were told to stay home. 

But with vaccines becoming widely available and business conditions returning to normal, critics say continuing supplemental federal unemployment benefits may be slowing the recovery.

U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, in a conference call Tuesday afternoon with reporters, argued against that notion.

“Are businesses saying this $300 prevents them from being successful?  Walsh asked. “I don’t see it. The President doesn’t see it.”

Walsh said the administration had done much to help restaurants and other businesses. “Most Americans would rather be working,” he added.

“Any worker in America, if they turn down a suitable job, they can lose their unemployment benefits,” Walsh said. A suitable job, he said, would be one that matches a worker’s skills and work experience, and provides a safe workplace. 

“They can’t just arbitrarily turn down the work,” Walsh added.

The state Labor Department agreed. A spokesperson said recipients of unemployment benefits must certify that they must be available to work, they’re actively looking, and that they have a search plan. The Labor Department also maintains a database of job openings that currently has more than 152,000 positions. The Jobs Express website may be found at https://statistics.labor.ny.gov/career-zone/jobs-express.shtml

Even some of the region’s largest employers have struggled to fill positions. Six Flags Great Escape theme park in Queensbury still has a number of openings despite virtual and drive-through job fairs, and weeks of online recruiting. It had 1,500 positions to fill.

“(W)e have yet to meet our hiring goal for this season, but with our excellent hiring incentives and easy application process, we hope to be the employer of

Colorado continued to slip behind the U.S. recovery in March, adding fewer jobs than it did in February and failing to lower the needle on its unemployment rate for the second month in a row. But it is too soon to put the state in the camp of economic laggards, economists said.

“The March employment gains for Colorado were modest. Given the magnitude of the U.S. employment numbers released earlier in the month, the Colorado numbers were disappointing but not surprising,” said Broomfield economist Gary Horvath.

Initially, the state had reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.6% in February, but that was revised to 6.4% following downward adjustments in the number of people who had actually rejoined the labor force and were looking for work. The state’s unemployment rate held steady in March, while the U.S. unemployment rate dropped from 6.2% to 6%.

Accustomed to ranking among the 10 lowest unemployment rate states prior to the pandemic, Colorado now ranks 34th, below Mississippi and just ahead of Delaware.

Colorado employers added 6,600 nonfarm payroll jobs between February and March, with 5,800 coming from the private sector and 800 from the public sector. Employment gains last month were down from a revised 9,100 jobs added in February.

The state has recovered 61.1% of the jobs it lost between February and April of last year, which slightly lags the U.S. job recovery rate of 62.4%, said Ryan Gedney, a senior labor economist with the state, during a news call Friday.

After rebounding sharply following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in December, the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector shed jobs again last month, losing 1,100 positions on a seasonally adjusted basis. Employment in financial activities and construction were also down slightly.

Some of the disruptions in tourism were expected given the winding down of the ski season, Gedney said. He added the March blizzard, the fourth largest in Denver history, shouldn’t matter much for either the March or April employment numbers.

On the plus side, business and professional services added 3,300 jobs last month, while trade, transportation and utility added 1,100 positions.

Colorado was a leader coming out of the 2001 tech-bust recession and the 2007-2009 Great Recession, but this time around, it has lagged in its recovery, Horvath said.

“We have to be patient. Colorado is going to recover at a different rate than other states. Within the state, the recovery will be different based on the geography and mix of regions,” he said.

The Colorado counties with the highest unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, in March were Huerfano at 9.8%, Las Animas at 8.9%, Pueblo at 8.7%, Fremont at 8.4%, and Rio Grande at 7.7%. Colorado’s unadjusted unemployment rate in March was 6.5%.