Job recruitment adopts social distancing as coronavirus alters practices

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing employers to alter how they recruit new employers

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Jeffrey Cyr wheeled his white Honda sedan into a parking space near a microbrewery and a taco joint at a strip mall here around midday recently. Instead of food, jobs were on the menu.

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As more businesses are permitted to resume operations around the U.S., employers are plotting fresh rehiring strategies, such as the curbside job fair in Grand Rapids that attracted Mr. Cyr and his girlfriend, Hannah Vruggink.

During the parking-lot screening, the couple and other job seekers sat in their cars and provided recruiters, wearing face masks, with basic information for possible callbacks on a range of jobs in light industry and those requiring skilled labor.

It is an example of how social distancing, needed to stem the coronavirus pandemic, is altering job recruitment.

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"Everybody knows how to do the curbside food now, so the idea is to take the concept and apply it to what we do," said Janis Petrini, owner of the local franchise of the placement agency Express Employment Professionals, which organized the modestly attended job fair.

After she talked with Mr. Cyr, a part-time welder who is 20 years old, and Ms. Vruggink, who is employed at a superstore, Ms. Petrini said Ms. Vruggink, who is also 20, could be a good fit for receptionist work or on an industrial assembly line. "We can find you something better than what you have right now," said Ms. Petrini. A day later Express lined Mr. Cyr up with a full-time welding position, he said.

Labor Department data don't yet show much sign of a rebound in job postings, with April's approximately 5 million listings down from around 6 million in March and lower by 2.2 million than a year earlier. Workers filed 1.5 million new unemployment claims for the week ended June 13, and 20.5 million people were receiving benefits during the prior week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Private surveys, however, suggest pent-up demand to hire. Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup said earlier this month that 60% of companies it surveyed expected to return to prepandemic hiring levels before the end of 2020.

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The initial stages of postlockdown hiring are already revealing challenges that weren't anticipated when government shutdown orders and other factors prompted companies to fire and furlough workers by the tens of millions in the midst of a buoyant economy and tight job market earlier this year. As states reopen, employers are bracing for what they expect will be floods of applicants as they staff back up, especially once the higher unemployment benefits issued as part of pandemic relief come to an end.

FILE - In this May 7, 2020 file photo, a person looks inside the closed doors of the Pasadena Community Job Center in Pasadena, Calif., during the coronavirus outbreak. California's unemployment rate continued to climb in May, reaching 16.3% as busin (Associated Press)

Industry executives said preparations for restaffing are highlighting organizational and legal hurdles, from sorting résumés and interviewing candidates by video, to rethinking staff sizes and duties as companies prepare for vastly different norms. Those issues come on top of workplace-safety strategies designed to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, such as taking workers' temperatures and installing plexiglass between workstations.

"They had to come up with playbooks," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director of the professional-services firm Robert Half International Inc. He has seen companies in finance and other industries adopt remote hiring, onboarding and work, while in the past only initial hiring tasks might be handled online. "What the world was required to do will now be carried into the future," Mr. McDonald said, adding that his firm's research shows that three-quarters of workers want their work to include telecommuting and forgo handshakes.

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Record joblessness means "the balance of power has shifted" toward employers, but the job-search industry remains geared toward the precrisis days of low unemployment, when any résumé was welcome, according to Jeffrey K. Rohrs, chief marketing officer of Jobvite Inc., an employment-software maker in the San Mateo, Calif. It conducts an annual survey that has found that more than half of all candidates apply for positions above their qualifications and offers systems to sort through applications.

Andria L. Ryan, an Atlanta-based labor lawyer at Fisher Phillips LLP, said she watched her hotelier clients reduce their staffs quickly when the pandemic hit. She urges them now to design systematic approaches for rehiring the best workers without triggering discrimination claims by those who aren't brought back. She said a starting point for employers is to recall what they told their employees when they let them go.

In the Cleveland area, Foundation Software Inc. added three positions during the lockdown using videoconferencing, which Mike Ode, the company's president, said works but makes it harder to judge candidates for "fit and culture," and nervousness. His usual practice, he said, was to question prospects, then walk them through company facilities. "There's nothing like reading a candidate face to face," Mr. Ode said.

Pitched as a hybrid hiring solution, curbside job fairs are popping up in places including Metairie, La., and Modesto, Calif. For Express's event in Grand Rapids, a streetside sign boasted "200 + Job Openings," and balloons decorated the strip mall parking lot.

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Among the early arrivals, Jermaine Stinson, who got a ride in a packed van operated by a homeless shelter, said he was looking for work similar to a steady job he had packing medicine before the coronavirus pandemic. "I just want it to go away, so everybody can go back to work," said Mr. Stinson, who is 43.

With several years of experience in light-industry jobs including packing snacks, order fulfillment and parts assembly, Tasha Bush, 40, was a shoo-in to the Express team for a factory position it was hiring for that will pay $14 an hour, up from the $11.50 she is getting now at a similar job.

Jobs on offer included 14 positions dubbed "high-touchpoint sanitizer" at a local company that wants its facility continually wiped down and expects the cleaners to walk up to 5 miles a day.

Ms. Petrini, owner of the Express franchise, said turnout at the fair was lower than expected. She attributed that partly to coronavirus unemployment benefits -- which she said come to around $20 per hour -- and partly to concern about the virus.

In contrast to the curbside fair, Ms. Petrini said a fully online event for work-from-home professionals her firm hosted in May was so popular it was extended to four days from one day as originally planned.

"We sort of get the pulse of things," she said.

Write to James T. Areddy at james.areddy@wsj.com

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