STAUNTON — The words “now hiring” can be seen on almost every business sign through Staunton.
Area businesses are trying everything to get people in the door and behind the counter to work, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Restaurants have cut hours and even closed on days they used to be open. Hotels are working with skeleton crews and doubling up on jobs to get things done. Job fairs are being held with extra bonuses for those who apply.
While local businesses are struggling to fill open positions, the state’s unemployment rate is dropping. The rate fell to 4.2% in July, which is 3.7 percentage points below the rate from last year.
The problem is, no one really knows why this is happening.
Laura Leduc, a professor in James Madison University’s department of management, said there’s a number of factors of why people aren’t returning to work. A couple reasons may include: there’s more risk in going into work now with little reward; or finding childcare is a daunting task; also wages have stagnated for decades.
“Women who have young kids can’t find daycare options or maybe don’t have schools that are open or the schools might reopen, but then there might be a quarantine again,” she said. “It’s just really hard to think about being a working parent, and having a child at home and not having any place for that child to go potentially during the day. So, for that segment of the population, that’s a huge detractor from going back into the workforce.”
Another issue Leduc brought up is a skills gap in the workforce. There are a lot of jobs out there with employers looking for a certain skill set. With a shortage of workers, that pool of workers with that specific skill grows even smaller. Unless, the company is willing to provide training, which means it would take more time to get an employee on board and trained than one who is and can immediately start. Either way, there’s a huge lag time.
“Organizations first try to find people with the skills because that’s more efficient,” she said.
Then, it gets to the point where we are currently — a labor shortage and a lack of skilled workers. Leduc said companies need to invest more in getting employees trained and also have higher wages.
“There are people out there who would rather get unemployment benefits than work, but I suspect that that’s actually a small sliver of what’s really going on and what’s really driving this … uncertainty about childcare is a big concern for many people. And then the skills gap I think is a concern for many organizations,” she said.
So why now?
“When there’s a crisis it reveals underlying problems that were already there,” Leduc said. “Sometimes it creates new problems too, but oftentimes it just reveals these areas that were problematic already, but weren’t a big enough problem to invest the time and resources into fixing.”
Jamie Breeden, the branch manager for LaborMax in Waynesboro, said they’ve had a slow couple months. LaborMax, which is a staffing agency, works directly with factories like Nibco, Fisher Auto Parts, the hospitality and restaurant industry and more in the Shenandoah Valley. The company has over 100 branches and four in Virginia.
“We do everything from bagging to construction cleanup, warehousing, manufacturing, things like that,” she said. “We’re very diverse in what jobs we have.”
The customer calls LaborMax and says they need a certain amount of workers. The agency will then start recruiting field team members to contract out. They get workers by placing advertisements on Facebook, Indeed and other social media platforms promoting jobs. Applicants are called in, registered through LaborMax and can be put out to work the following day
The Waynesboro branch has 21 clients currently and work with about 70 field team members — a stark difference from back in April, where they only had about 35 field team members. Usually, they’re placing between 15 to 20 people in jobs per week.
Now, she’s facing another challenge altogether — getting workers to show up after they’re hired.
“It is true when people say people don’t want to work, because I can hire 10 people and put them out to work, and probably half of them, maybe more than half are not going to show up,” Breeden said. “It’s either they don’t really want to work, or they went home and thought about it and this job is not not the job for them.
“I have over 50 jobs open right now and if I had 50 people walk in, I could give every single one of them a job. But, they’re just not coming in now,” she added.
In mid-August, Pilot Travel Center outside of Staunton was looking to fill 50 full-time and part-time positions available at its Arby’s restaurant. Pay begins at $12-an-hour and after 60 days of employment, entry-level positions will receive a $750 sign-on bonus and shift leaders a $1,000 sign-on bonus.
According to Yvette Fragile, manager of talent acquisition operations for Pilot Company, they had about 15 interested candidates attend the job fair and they hired eight of them. They’re still looking to hire 40 more people and are offering the sign-on bonus.
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How these two Staunton hotels are dealing with the labor shortage
Richard Smith, the general manager at the Blackburn Inn in Staunton, said there’s been a lack of qualified applicants — or any applicants for that matter.
Two days after posting a job opening for a line level cook starting at $12 an hour, they had heard nothing, and that’s not normal, Smith said.
“It used to be that you would put a job posting up there, and you’re just having an influx of applicants,” he said. “There’s definitely a lack of applicants.”
Last week, he had to be in the kitchen of the hotel’s restaurant. Current staff is having to work other jobs throughout the hotel to fill in the gaps.
Other jobs they are hiring for can garner more in wages. They’re looking to fill a number of licensed massage therapists positions, which come with a $500 bonus after 90 days, according to the job listing.
Those applying for the managerial positions are also not qualified. For a job they posted for a director of sales, they had a pool of three qualified applicants, which they would normally see 10 to 15.
The hotel currently has five to six open positions — two in the restaurant, two in housekeep and the rest in the spa. They need about 40 people to have a full staff.
“When you’re missing five or six, it can be really difficult,” he said.
With the lack of staff, they still have a high occupancy rate. At some points, they had to cut down on the number of rooms they were selling, because it was just not possible for the cleaning staff to keep up with the extra cleaning they’re doing due to COVID precautions and not have them work 10 to 12 hours — something Smith said is just not doable.
“The cleanliness has become more focused, so it takes a little bit longer to clean,” he said.
Smith is still trying to entice people to work the open jobs. With the massage therapist positions, he’s even working with massage therapy schools in the area — something he hasn’t done in the past — to get students to work at the spa for credit.
As for incentives for other positions, he’s even offering current workers bonuses if they bring in new hires. In 2020, the hotel had to do two rounds of layoffs — once in March and then again in December. The core team that has been there for the entirety has really banded together, Smith said. Sales people have cleaned rooms, Smith has run the laundry and they’re still greeting guests and attending to their needs.
“Since May when restrictions were really lifted and travel really came back we have run about 90% occupancy on weekends since then,” Smith said. “Weekdays are less due to the loss of corporate and business travelers, at around 60% occupancy.”
In 2019, the hotel saw an average of 53% occupancy, it then dropped to 32% in 2020 and got back up to 45% this year.
“So while things are not back to normal, we have come a long way in a very short period of time,” he said.
Damon Strickland, the general manager for Hotel 24 South, said they are about 15 staff members short. At peak times — like summer into fall — they’ve employed nearly 75 people.
He said that leisure travel has definitely rebounded since the pandemic hit. People are wanting to get away, even for smaller overnight trips.
“It just takes all of our efforts, every day, to meet the demand, which is great … it’s a great problem to have,” he said. “We just need more folks to return to our industry.”
Although he’s seeing other companies jumping at the chance to offer signing bonuses, it’s something Hotel 24 South isn’t doing much of — instead there are referral bonuses and attendance bonuses.
“What we’ve seen is that it may increase the quantity of applicants you may get, it does not change the quality,” he said. “The hardest part is just getting folks to truly show up. It’s definitely an employee market … a lot of negotiating power right now, surprised we just don’t see more of it.”
The job openings at Hotel 24 South range from cooks to bartenders, banquet and restaurant servers to housekeepers and front desk agents with a mix of part-time and full-time with pay rates between $11 and $18 depending on position and skill set.
“We offer a host of benefits that include medical, dental, vision and pet insurance along with company match 401k retirement savings, attendance and referral bonuses, annual merit increases, travel discounts and opportunities for advancement,” Strickland said.
The majority of tourism-related businesses in Staunton are understaffed, according to Sheryl Wagner, director of tourism in Staunton.
“As a result, businesses have had to reduce hours and even days of operation and you may find that the same person that checked you in is also cleaning your room,” she said. “Rebuilding the hospitality workforce continues to be a challenge throughout the U.S. and the service industry asks for patience and understanding from their patrons at this time.”
Laura Peters is the trending topics reporter at The News Leader. Have a news tip on local trends or businesses? Or a good feature? You can reach reporter Laura Peters (she/her) at [email protected]. Follow her @peterslaura. Subscribe to The News Leader at newsleader.com.