Lack of available workforce causing difficulty with post-pandemic rebound
The American job market is in an interesting place for employers and employees, alike. One way to look at just where it stands involves reading data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which suggests that there is currently plenty of workers to go around- and they should all be desperate for work, any work, after a world-wide pandemic brought unemployment numbers to nearly 15 percent, the highest they’d been since this data began being collected in 1948.
Currently, the national unemployment rate is 6 percent. In Louisiana, unemployment rested at 7.3 percent in April 2021, down from 14.5 percent the same time the previous year, according to the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
Shreveport-Bossier is showing a current unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.
While these numbers tell one story, employers are telling another- they can’t find help. This is particularly evident in the restaurant and other service industries, from big cities to small towns, where long wait lines and signs announcing “we are hiring” and “we are understaffed” abound.
“It’s really dire out there,” said Carole Bennett, the Director of Membership Development at the Greater Shreveport Chamber. “Especially for anyone in the restaurant, bar or hospitality industry. They are drowning.”
Bennett said the Chamber hosted a job fair in April where more than 20 employers were on hand to take applications. Throughout the entire day, only 9 people applied.
“We’ve had restaurants call us and ask for the list of applicants and we just don’t have one,” she said.
Just one look at the social media sites of beloved local restaurants helps to paint the picture.
Tejas Kitchen Bar Patio in Towne Oak Square had to scale back their hours and cut out their Tuesday- Thursday lunch shift because they are so understaffed. The restaurant made that announcement on Facebook on June 16.
“Dearest Tejas fans!! Due to a severe shortage in staff, we are currently limited in the hours we can operate. We sincerely apologize for this unfortunate circumstance and for any inconvenience this may cause. Thank you for your understanding,” the post read, with an accompanying photo saying “We’re Hiring!”
Ralph and Kacoos and Ki’ Mexico are two other local restaurants who have taken to Facebook to look for employees. An Internet search for area restaurants that are hiring results in hundreds of listings.
Brandie Eckert is the Front Office Manager with Lotus Hospitality, a chain of hotels, said the hotel she manages had several openings that paid $9-$12, depending on experience. Those positions were open for around three months before being filled.
That pay rate is equal to or less than what someone would make with unemployment benefits plus the expanded unemployment insurance, and many economists and business leaders blame worker shortages on these added benefits. In Louisiana, the maximum amount a person can claim on unemployment insurance in one week is $247, which is among the lowest unemployment pay in the country and does not include supplemental COVID income.
However, not everyone collecting unemployment got that amount.
A recent report by Step Up Louisiana found recipients were paid an average of $180- $210 a week in state benefits since March 2020
Add to that a $300 weekly supplement (that was part of the pandemic rescue plan), plus multiple stimulus payments, and these extra funds allowed many of the country’s lowest wage-earners the chance to stay home and make more than they did before the pandemic put them out of work.
Even with things looking bleak, some companies do appear to be successfully hiring at high rates.
According to a jobs report released by the White House, the acceleration of jobs being filled in March was at the fastest pace since August of last year. The economy added 916,000 jobs that month.
However, after that initial surge, just 266,000 jobs were added in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That total came in below expectations.
According to a monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, 44 percent of small business owners have job openings they could not fill in April.
Jamie Wessler, Clinical Director/Midwife at the Shreveport Birth Center, said they have been wanting to hire a staff midwife for at least a year, but COVID complicated matters.
This position pays $60,000-80,000 annually.
With so many open jobs, and expanded benefits set to expire in September, it begs the question- why aren’t people filling these open positions?
Reviewing the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey could provide some answers. Data shows that, nationally, many people were waiting until things were safer to return to work. According to the survey, when vaccination rates increased, so did employment rates.
The survey also showed that kids being home, instead of in school, remained a major reason for adults not working. Based on several surveys, 6.3 million people were not working because they needed to care for a child.
Quite possibly the biggest factor, right now, is that employers just aren’t paying enough, especially in the restaurant and bar industry, which relies heavily on tips from patrons to pay employees.
There are several sectors and companies that thrived during the pandemic, and they often pay higher wages than restaurants do. Amazon added 500,000 employees in 2020, with wages starting at $15 an hour. Companies like Walmart, Target and Whole Foods have been hiring, as well, with wages above, at or close to what Amazon offers.
And they’re not alone. Companies of every kind have been hiring and increasing wages, as well as offering other incentives to get people to apply. United Airlines, for example, bought a flight school and is offering scholarships to qualified candidates who sign on with them.
Margaritaville and Boomtown in Bossier City is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus to anyone who signs on for a job in culinary.
To help fill the midwife position, the birth center “opened a short term residency to have qualified, chosen applicants come to work with us for four weeks each to see if it’s a good fit. We’re paying them a moderate flat rate to be here and are providing housing during their stay. We are also offering the higher end of salary among birth centers even though we live in a very low income/low cost of living community,” Wessler said
They currently have four applicants.
But even with so many openings and so many people hiring, there are still workers that are looking for jobs or have only just been hired, despite searching for months.
Robert Smith, 39, of Shreveport was a territory manager for the Garland Company, selling high-end roofing and waterproofing in the commercial market. He worked for Garland for six years before he was let go last year.
Smith contracted COVID in March 2020.
“I ended up getting pneumonia and other complications leaving me unable to work for an extended amount of time. The company decided to give me an impractical sales goal as a reason for dismissal,” he said.
Smith drew unemployment for a few months, but he said that the pay was nowhere close to what he was making.
“I was a successful salesman and made great money and I only received the COVID pay for 1 week. As soon as I was let go the additional benefits were expiring,” he said.
Smith found a job in construction sales, but that is currently on hold until the logistics of what he can do in the position are feasible.
“Right now, I’m not being paid so it is much less than both what I was making and unemployment. I understand that it is very unlikely that I will have the opportunity to make the money I was making before the pandemic for at least 3 years,” he said.
The father of two said that while searching for employment, he received call backs at a rate of less than 5 percent of the positions he applied for.
“I worked to find work 8 hours a day, and at least 5 days a week, for roughly 10 months. I applied for any position that I would see that I was qualified for and rarely would hear from anyone, unless they were hiring for a contract salesperson,” he said.
Karisca Wheeler, 32, of Shreveport was doing data entry for a payroll processing company last March. She’d been there a little over a year when the lockdown started.
“I was let go because I refused to go back to the office while COVID was still a thing with no vaccine. My mom got diagnosed with it the day I had to go back in the office,” she said.
She had a second job to get her through, and then she worked two jobs beginning in August. She is currently employed with another company doing data entry.
“I’m making more now than at the payroll company,” she said, but to get to that point, she had to put in many job applications. Like Smith, she didn’t hear back from many of them.
“There was a lot of silence. It’s really disheartening,” she said.
Wheeler decided that retail and restaurant jobs were not worth the pay they offered, and Smith agreed.
“They do not pay a livable wage. It would have been fiscally irresponsible to take a job at a bar or restaurant because it would cost me more than I could make working there,” he said. “Paying for childcare for two children would cost me twice what I could make at a bar or restaurant.”
Smith also echoed what the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey showed.
“The hours are unrealistic for anyone with a family. Working late into the night while still caring for two children and two grandparents is not something I can do anymore,” he said.
As for why her business has had a hard time filling its open midwife position, Wessler had some thoughts.
“Location is a big factor. Shreveport isn’t a big, well-known city, and we only have one other
midwife in the area. So, there isn’t a local applicant pool to choose from, and it’s a hard sell to
get someone to want to relocate their entire family to the Northwest corner of Louisiana,” she said.
Change and growth may be slow for the area, but change and growth is happening. In the first four months of 2021 alone, Caddo Parish added 129 new businesses to its roster, according to the City of Shreveport.
In another big win, Amazon announced it is opening a multi-million dollar fulfillment center in Shreveport, creating 1,000 direct jobs and around 3,000 jobs in total related to the project. Completion in the facility is slated for some time in 2022.
And if you are still looking for a job, or needing to fill a position, the Greater Shreveport Chamber has launched a Job Bank that is utilized by chamber members to advertise their open positions. That can be accessed at business.shreveportchamber.org/jobs.