Lorilee Fernandez had no idea her 26 weeks of unemployment were in danger of expiring when she called the state to ask a routine question.
"They said, 'Keep your ears and eyes open,' " she said, recalling tense days of worrying whether Congress would extend the benefits. "At that point I didn't want to sit and wait."
So the 32-year-old mother turned to an employment agency. Hobbie Personnel of Allentown helped her finish out another worker's temporary assignment and turn the gig into a full-time job in a few of weeks.
"I need somebody who can grab the bull by the horns," Fernandez said the hiring manager at Harned Durham Energy in Upper Milford Township told her. 'I said, 'Well you found the right person.'"
Experience and connections helped Fernandez of South Whitehall Township. She was a casualty of UGI layoffs in the spring and started school full time at Lehigh Carbon Community College, where a professor recommended her to Hobbie.
Not everyone's as lucky, but data suggest temporary employment opportunities, at least, are on the rise.
The sector added 700 jobs in December, the most recent month for which numbers are available, according to Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry figures for Northampton, Lehigh and Carbon counties and Warren County in New Jersey.
It was the fifth consecutive monthly increase, although seasonal employment may skew the data somewhat. The industry showed an increase of almost 19 percent in December compared with one year earlier in the local region. Across the state the number was less than 9 percent, according to the state.
Sherri Wertz, vice president of business development for Hobbie Personnel, said the company has seen an marked increase in the number of companies looking for workers in the last six months, especially January and February. The company matches workers and jobs in many fields, including nursing, production, the sciences, information technology and finance.
"We've actually seen a fairly sharp increase in the number of orders and positions coming to us," she said, adding that companies that had been seeking a few workers now are often looking for more.
The uptick temporary and contract employment services are seeing could indicate the economy is on its way back.
"I think companies with the whole economic climate we've seen over last year are a little hesitant to hire anyone until they have a better feel for the overall economic climate," Wertz said.
That's where temporary workers come in, said Martie Telepo, manager of the Easton branch of the national employment agency Manpower Inc.
"In general, agencies are typically the first to feel the hurt of an economic downturn," she said. "Companies feel [temporary] workers can be let go, but we're also the first to see business pick up."
A Manpower survey paints a gloomy picture. Employers in the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton area "expect to hire at a cautious pace" in the first quarter of this year, a company statement says.
Manpower calls the local employment outlook "one of the weakest in the nation," citing a 2 percent decrease in the number of companies that plan to hire more workers from January to March compared with the last quarter of 2010.
Mike Harned, owner of Harned Durham Energy, said the economy has not affected his use of temporary labor, but the company has had success bringing seasonal workers back year after year.
Short-term contracts give Harned a chance to work with employees before committing to hiring them.
"Often we find that an individual that just doesn't fit," he said. "Rather than hiring them and having to let them go, we say: Heere's where their shortcomings are. You can place them in a job better suited to them and you can find us a better fit."
Fernandez is optimistic she can complete her human resources management studies and move on to DeSales University while working for Harned, who called her work ethic "phenomenal."
For her, the service manger job came just in the nick of time. She had been adjusting to the demands of school full time, but the prospect of losing unemployment sent her into panic mode.
"Christmas was coming around the corner," she said. "I had to replace a transmission in the meantime. It's something you think you're prepared for until you really do it. It was a big reality check for me."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun