Amy Flowers, owner of Max Labor Staffing in St. Augustine, has enough jobs to fill; she just doesn’t have enough applicants willing to take them.
Flowers, who owns the St. Augustine franchise and another in Jacksonville, said it’s the worst she’s seen the temp agency market in her 13 years in the business.
“We just don’t know on any given day if anyone will walk through our door looking for work,” Flowers said in an interview Tuesday with The Record.
Florida’s financial pain:Could linger as jobless claims jump
St. Johns County unemployment rate: Lowest in the state as Florida dips to 6.1%
According to January employment statistics from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the unemployment rate in Northeast Florida was at 4.5%, with St. Johns at 3.5%, the lowest rate among area counties.
That compares with Florida’s state unemployment rate of 5.3% and the U.S. as a whole at 6.8%.
The sting of the pandemic-related economic slowdown that took hold in March 2020 seemed to ease in recent months, especially in St. Johns County, even as hiring stalled statewide.
The September 2020 unemployment rate was 4.1% and it continued to drop through December when it was as low as 2.6%
So what’s behind the recent uptick?
Well, for one, the unemployment benefits people have come to depend on will continue through at least August. On top of that, many taxpayers are receiving federal stimulus relief checks, and some are also beginning to get tax refunds in the mail.
“They’re making more on unemployment and they’re sitting at home and getting money, or even free food, and thinking, why should I work for what you can pay me?” said Flowers.
Most of the opportunities Flowers offers start at around $10 or $11 an hour, but some can pay as much as $14 — jobs like housecleaners, warehouse workers or clerical positions.
“But a lot of people, they don’t want to do these things, especially the hard manual labor,” Flowers said.
Even sign-on bonuses and others incentives don’t always work to attract or retain workers, and Flowers is becoming worried about her own ability to fill enough contracts to stay in the black.
Service industry has major holes to fill
A recent study by the Brookings Institute examined unemployment trends throughout the pandemic, finding that the employment losses in leisure and hospitality accounted for 33% of all missing jobs, followed by professional business services (8.8%), health services (7.5%), and local education (6.4%).
The hardest-to-fill jobs, perhaps not surprisingly, are those that pay the least, and with the tourism industry in St. Johns County reliant on so many service jobs, that sector of the economy may be disproportionately affected here.
The St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau made the unusual step last week of putting out a public plea, saying the hospitality industry was in “a very aggressive hiring mode for full-time (40 hours/week) as well as part-time employees in food service, management, housekeeping, engineering and maintenance.”
A sample of local area hotels, restaurants and attractions with job openings include the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, Embassy Suites by Hilton Oceanfront St. Augustine Beach, Old Town Trolley Tours and Columbia Restaurant.
Peter Kenney, chef and owner of the Purple Olive restaurant in St. Augustine, said he has had trouble keeping staff on board after having to limit work schedules due to decreased demand.
Kenney said one of his top chefs is receiving enough on unemployment benefits and recent stimulus money to pass up Kenney’s offers to bring him back on staff full-time.
“A year ago, there were more people than jobs; now it’s the reverse,” Flowers said.
Another reason for creeping unemployment rates may be found in the number of folks who had been job hunting dropping out of the market.
According to the Brookings Institute report, labor force participation fell from 63.3% in February 2020 to 61.5% at the end of 2020.
Rebecca Livingston, executive vice president for CareerSource Northeast Florida which has an office in St. Augustine, said: “If you are looking for immediate employment, jobs exist. If you are looking for training to get into a new career, CareerSource NEFL has training opportunities that can help you get onto a new career path in a growing industry within the Northeast Florida region.”
Customer service, sales and administration positions are at the top, Livingston said.
CareerSource will hold a virtual job fair March 31, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., in cooperation with Florida State College at Jacksonville, St. Johns River State College, First Coast Technical College and Florida Gateway College.
More than 100 regional companies across all sectors of the economy are expected to participate.
“Among these participating companies, many of them (including many manufacturers) are at their pre-pandemic hiring levels,” Livingston added.
Registration is open now at bit.ly/NEFLHiringEvent.
Optimism on the horizon
The Brookings Institute study predicts that “real GDP will increase about 6% between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the fourth quarter of 2021. If this growth materializes, output by the end of 2021 will be about back to the level it would have been had the pandemic not occurred.”
“We are hopeful that the inoculation of people with the COVID-19 vaccine will encourage more consumers to engage in the community, and spur more potential job seekers who have not rejoined the workforce,” Livingston added.