The year ahead: Service-related jobs slow to return, while flexible work policies will be the norm

The world of work changed dramatically in 2020, and it looks like it will remain in flux as we move into 2021. One of the grim realities that’s still causing so much suffering is the enormous number of people who remain out of work.

In Mehidy Chafa’s Quincy home, a picture he painted of the Omni Parker House Hotel is on proud display. He worked there for 30 years until he was furloughed last spring.

“So loyal to the hotel and working for the company for a long time and then you find yourself, everything, gone like that,” said Chafa as he snapped his fingers.

Chafa was a well-honored banquet server, bringing meals to four presidents over the years. He loved his job and considered his co-workers to be like family members.

Now when Chafa isn’t painting, he’s watching soccer on TV, and worrying about his family’s finances. His son is still in college. He said he’s cut back on his expenses and hasn’t been out to a restaurant since March, and now cuts his hair himself instead of spending money on a barber.

Almost 700,000 Massachusetts workers lost their jobs last spring. Only about half are back to work.

“In early January, I anticipate some downsizing from companies who were holding off with the pandemic, trying to keep as many people employed as they possibly could,” said Elaine Varelas, a human resource consultant with Keystone Partners in Boston.

Varelas said she does expect to see some bright spots in the job market. “There will be some strong hiring at the same time for organizations that were afraid to invest in their company, so we’re going to see both happening at the same time.

Even with the distribution of vaccines, industries like hospitality could take a long time before many workers are called back. Varelas expects the most hiring in technology-related fields. “If you’re a field tied to biotechnology, or tied to financial services, those areas are going to recover much more quickly, and those people will absolutely be in demand.”

A trend of lower-paid, direct service workers left on the sidelines of a recovery raises concerns about economic justice. “There’s going to be a portion of the population that will be permanently affected by it, what is seen as temporary for the rest of the population,” added Boston College professor of economics Chandini Sankaran.

The other big change brought about by the pandemic is working from home. What was seen as a temporary solution is now looking more and more permanent.

“The genie is out of the bottle on the ability to get your work done remotely or from home,” said Lisa Walker, a work futurist with Fuze in Boston. “Work is no longer a place you go to. It’s a thing you do, and employees are going to demand flexibility.”

Employers will need to offer workers options in order to attract and retain good talent, according to Walker. “If you want to be an employer of choice moving forward, and you want to be known for a great culture, you are going to have to build flexible work policies, not just where people get their work done, but when.”

None of this is an option for a worker like Chafa. “We have to be there. We have to be hands-on. I mean in service they have to bring it from here to there.”

Economists at Moody’s recently estimated that it won’t be until 2024 that all the jobs lost in the pandemic will be restored.

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