In late May, Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas hosted a job fair to put desperate employers in touch with unemployed workers.
It didn’t go exactly according to plan.
Robert Puls, director of business services for Abilene-based Workforce Solutions, said about 80 employers signed up. Many suggested they would be willing to hire on site. And a few did.
What was not expected that afternoon? Pulse claimed there were too few job seekers to look for job opportunities.
“It was the week after the governor announced that we would no longer accept federal unemployment benefits,” Puls said, admitting that turnout was significantly lower than expected. “We had a little over 300 job seekers. For 80 employers.”
It was May 17 when Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas would soon choose to leave federal unemployment incentives for the unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that time, cases were declining as more jeans were vaccinated against the deadly disease. It was believed that cutting off access to extra money would encourage those who stayed home to resume work and make the economy roar.
This has not happened.
Months later, “Now Contracting” posters are posted all over the city, especially in commercial, restaurant and entertainment establishments. Panera Bread, a restaurant that came to Abilene during the pandemic, has temporarily closed the dining room due to lack of staff. A sign at the entrances confirms the reasoning.
Dunkin ‘has not reopened the dining room since the beginning of the pandemic’s closure, and several other restaurants are struggling to find workers, offering higher-than-normal wages to try to convince people.
With schools back in session, relief could come, Pulse said.
“In the past, we’ve seen when colleges let go, and high school students can get a lot of those positions,” Puls said. “Then when colleges come back and high school students go back to school, college students pick up a lot of that work. It’s a change.”
Unless the signs have disappeared. Restaurants and retail continue to suffer from the after-effects of the pandemic and universities and colleges have been in session for two weeks.
There would be several factors at stake, Pulse said.
One possibility, he said, is for people to choose to retire if they grow up, instead of going back to work and facing uncertainty due to the pandemic.
Another, he said, could be that workers who would normally hold these positions choose to stay home because of household needs. Like daycare, for example.
There is a state-funded program, he said, that is offered through Workforce Solutions to fund one-year daycare for service industry workers. But that may not be enough for some families.
There is also the possibility that workers may be tired of the potential harm of working in these establishments, including potential exposure to the virus caused by COVID-19.
So, he said, maybe they learn new skills in hopes of finding a more stable job.
“A person in the restaurant is more exposed to the public if he’s a server and all that,” he said. “Is it COVID? It could be. It could be that people decide they will do something else and skill and (go back to school).”
Workforce Solutions has been busy finding alternative ways to perfect people, including virtual training through the Oculus Rift virtual reality experience.
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All Puls knew for sure was that the situation leading up to Labor Day festivities is different from what Abilene had seen in the past.
While the city has suffered industry-specific economic slowdowns and slowdowns, it feels different, he said.
“When the oil bust happened, people had to go look for other jobs,” Puls said. “There was nothing stopping you from working. You were 26 weeks unemployed and that was all. It’s different from COVID. People were going to other jobs. They were going to other industries.”
Timothy Chipp covers education and is a general assignment reporter for Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally-driven news, you can help local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.