Marie Santora-Lent of Bellmore spent months looking for work after being furloughed and leaving her job at an auto dealership in Nassau. The search had made her feel stressed and numb, she says. Since this video was made she has received a tentative job offer. Credit: Barry Sloan

Job hunting in a pandemic is no picnic.

Job cuts and closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic mean a record number of unemployed Long Islanders are competing for a small number of openings. Many of the openings that do exist are for positions that involve customer contact or could otherwise expose workers to the virus, making them unattractive to those with medical risk factors.

Plus, the pandemic has knocked out most opportunities for in-person interviewing and networking.

The number of jobless is bigger than ever before. Last fall, 18,900 Long Islanders were collecting unemployment. This year, almost eight times that number — 148,700 — are depending on those benefits as they search for work in an economy turned upside down by the pandemic. Additionally, more than a million New Yorkers are reliant on a special form of unemployment insurance aimed at gig workers, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Still more have had their hours slashed.

“They totally ghost you."

- Linda Perla, of East Northport

Her situation: A former executive assistant who left her job at a wealth management company in 2019.

How is her search going? Job recruiters have frequently left her high and dry without communication, she said, after what felt like good interviews to her.

Linda Perla of East Northport has looked for work in difficult job markets in the past. But the unemployed executive assistant, who's been looking for work since October after leaving a job at a wealth management company in Woodbury, said finding work has never been this challenging.

"This is now harder than '08," Perla said of the Great Recession.

Frequently, she said, recruiters have left her high and dry without communication after what felt like good interviews to her.

"They totally ghost you," Perla said. "I realize that not every job is for everyone. But to ghost people … we’re real people on the other end."

Prior to the pandemic, the Island’s hiring landscape was defined by a tight labor market that put many job seekers in the driver’s seat, leaving HR executives, hiring managers and recruiting firms lamenting the competition for top talent.

Now, any leverage job seekers had – especially those with fewer qualifications – has evaporated.

Nationally, there were about 13.6 million unemployed people vying for 6.5 million jobs in August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — more than two people for every job available. In the Northeast, it was worse, with nearly 3 candidates for every opening.

The regional ratio shows that "the job market is tougher for the job seeker right now," said Shital Patel, labor market analyst in the state Labor Department’s Hicksville office.

People hunting for jobs online, on sites such as Indeed, Monster and ZipRecruiter, are destined to face frustration, said Tony Lee, vice president of editorial for the Society of Human Resource Management, a national trade organization for HR professionals in Alexandria, Virginia.

"By the time [an opening] gets to a job site, it’s either a position that is very hard to fill, or it’s in a location that is very hard to fill, or it’s already been filled," Lee said. "That’s the way it’s been for a while now."

Many companies "have and maintain their own internal resume databases," and mine those for hires, he said. Additionally, firms often have referral programs that reward existing employees for referring good candidates. Taken together, the ways many companies hire now leave online job seekers competing for a limited number of hard-to-fill positions.

And online interviews are different from shaking a recruiter's hand.

"It’s very different doing a Zoom interview," said Rashaad Lloyd, 26, a chef who recently spent four months searching for work after a seasonal gig ended. "In an in-person interview, I feel like I’m in a conversation with someone. When I was sitting for a Zoom interview, it felt like I was being questioned," Lloyd said. "You felt like you were being read the Miranda Rights."

Lloyd, who recently landed work at a Bay Shore steakhouse, said during his search he applied online for 10 to 15 jobs a day, mainly in the restaurant field, and felt lucky if he received a few follow-up calls a week.

In his six years in the field, landing a job had never been as hard as during the COVID pandemic.

"You’ve got restaurants shutting down left and right," he said. "It was hard to find things to apply to."

“It’s like a nightmare.”

- Marie Santora-Lent, of Bellmore

Her situation: Recently started training for an office administrator job after months of looking for jobs online.

How did her search go? She said few of her job applications received a response and when she arrived for one of the few in-person interviews she did land, the doors were locked and no one answered the phone. 

Marie Santora-Lent of Bellmore, 57, who recently started training for an office administrator job after months of looking, said she felt alienated by the online nature of today's job search.

She was furloughed from her accounts payable job at a car dealership in March and lost the position shortly after the May death of her father. But she said she never stopped looking for work, checking for job postings on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Craigslist. Despite her efforts, few of her applications garnered responses.

She said she often stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. applying for jobs in the hopes of getting a jump on the competition. On one occasion, Santora-Lent said she responded to a want ad on Facebook. When she arrived for one of the few in-person interviews she'd landed, the doors were locked and no one answered the phone.

The search has taken a toll, and she is still worried about paying the mortgage.

"I’m a little numb at the moment," she said.

While the hiring market has been tremendously impacted, some employers, such as supermarkets, warehouses and businesses that provide other frontline service, are in desperate need of workers, Lee said.

Several companies with operations on the Island have plans to hire, including Amazon and Home Depot, which combined expect to add at least 300 employees for last-mile warehouses; Nature's Bounty, which plans to hire more than 250 workers across its 11 Suffolk facilities; and Whole Foods, which plans to fill 2,500 permanent and seasonal positions in the metro area.

Jim Morris, owner of staffing agency Express Employment Professionals in Farmingdale, said most of the companies looking for workers are those with in-person, minimum wage or "maybe a dollar above" positions to fill.

"We are seeing companies across Long Island struggle to fill the entry-level and manual labor, in-person jobs," Morris said. "Jobs that don’t necessarily require a lot of training or skills but do require reliability and dependability."

Before the pandemic hit, Perla, the unemployed executive assistant, said she was confident in her prospects, having grown accustomed to recruiter inquiries in her LinkedIn inbox.

"There was a lot of activity with meetings and head hunters, whether it be in the city or on Long Island, and it all dried up," she said. "Once COVID hit, either I didn’t find the right fit or any job I was interested in wasn’t hiring."

Perla said she worries that her 20 years of experience as an executive assistant may be hurting her chances among prospective employers looking to offer entry-level compensation.

For some, like Jaime Contreras of Huntington Station, finding a job could be the difference between staying on Long Island or moving.

Contreras, a U.S. citizen, worked at White Post Farms in Melville for eight years before he was let go in April.

Since then he’s applied for several jobs – all of them in person – at local supermarkets and retail outfits, including Costco, C-Town, and various thrift stores, without any luck.

"I'm very worried because when I worked, I could at least save a little bit of money. Now, that’s impossible," said Contreras, a native of Guatemala. The $395 in weekly unemployment payments he receives is not enough to cover the rent, car insurance and other necessities for his wife and two high school-aged kids.

"Sometimes I think about just going back to my country before I end up here, broke, with nothing," Contreras said. "But then I think about my kids. It’s a better life for them here … they have opportunities. So, for them … I want to try to make it here somehow."

“My whole trajectory just changed."

- John Rickenbacker Jr., of Bellport

His situation: A standup comedian and actor who was on track to go on tour, do a comedy special, and work on a project with Kenan Thompson of "Saturday Night Live" fame until the pandemic hit. 

How did his search go? After going through the summer unemployed, he was called in to work as a teacher’s aide two weeks into the new school year at Wyandanch High School. 

While job losses have been jarring and painful for many, John K. Rickenbacker Jr. of Bellport has found a silver lining.

Rickenbacker, a stand-up comedian and actor by trade, was on track to go on tour, do a comedy special, and work on a project with Kenan Thompson of "Saturday Night Live" fame. Then the pandemic hit.

"My whole trajectory just changed. Thousands of dollars just wiped off," said Rickenbacker, who performs under the stage name FUDGE. "I went from being an up-and-comer to coming back down to ground zero. That’s a big blow."

The entertainer, who recently had his first child, said he’s used to the grind and competition of finding work in TV and film. But with productions largely halted and comedy venues shuttered, there was no work to be found.

Luckily, Rickenbacker had a fallback plan.

Two years ago, he started part-time work as a substitute teacher for the Wyandanch High School. As the spring semester wore on this year, he was able to secure somewhat steady work teaching high schoolers.

After going through the summer unemployed, Rickenbacker was called in to work as a teacher’s aide at Wyandanch High School. The position is a step down in pay – roughly $20,000 less – than his previous education gig, but he said it’s been a fulfilling experience.

"I just had to take what I could get. My options were very slim," he said. Still, he says, the job has been rewarding and gives him the opportunity to use his skill as an entertainer to engage students while he waits for production work to pick up.

"I found my way back to education and education has been giving me such a tremendous blessing to help these kids through this crazy time."

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How many weeks? Unemployment insurance in the COVID era

While normal, state funded unemployment insurance benefits end after 26 weeks, some long-term unemployed Long Islanders could see aid last up to 59 weeks, thanks to two federal aid extensions.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a funding mechanism created by the federal government as part of the CARES Act, extends benefits by 13 weeks once a recipient exhausts their initial 26 weeks. The PEUC benefit expires on Dec. 27, 2020, according to the state Labor Department.

However, a federal extension called Extended Benefits prolongs unemployment benefits again by up to 20 weeks once a state’s unemployment rate rises to a certain level. New York qualified for the added extension on July 5.

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