As local businesses close and staff are furloughed, unemployment numbers continue to rise across the state of Texas and the future of the post-coronavirus job market remains unclear, local economic leaders said.

Kelly Violette, executive director of the Tomball Economic Development Corp., said the hard part is not knowing when the situation will end.

“We are going to see [a] tremendous amount of unemployed people,” she said. “We have been on this high, especially in the Houston area, with such a low unemployment rate.”

To help curb the spread of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, local governments in Harris and Montgomery counties have placed restrictions on businesses requiring them either to change how they operate or to close down.

As more claims are filed each day, numbers are expected to continue to grow. In Harris County alone, the Texas Workforce Commission recorded more than 52,000 unemployment claims during the week of April 4. The Houston metropolitan area’s unemployment rate also jumped from 3.9% to 5.1% in March, surpassing the state and national averages of 4.7% and 4.5%, respectively.

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, said during an April 14 webinar that job losses could reach 250,000 in the Houston area for March and April, as previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper.

Sandy Barton, president of the Greater Magnolia Parkway Chamber of Commerce, said business owners are very anxious about when they can reopen their businesses and that getting information to employers has been key during this crisis.

“Employers were not aware that if they reduce employee hours, employees are eligible to apply for unemployment,” she said.

Bobby Lieb, president and CEO of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce, said that once coronavirus cases begin to dwindle, the local economy is not going to just jump right back to where it was before the pandemic

“Labor is always the last thing to be brought back, [as it is the] most expensive cost,” he said.

Lieb said he is optimistic that Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan announced April 17 to lift coronavirus restrictions in Texas could be one way to bring the economy and jobs back sooner rather than later.

“Every job that is created is a boom for the economy,” Lieb said. “Texas also had the most [Paycheck Protection Program] awards, so hopefully, the stimulus will help.”

In Magnolia, Barton said the chamber is urging elected officials to do what is needed to get back to business as soon as possible.

“Business owners are looking forward to working through the governor's phased approach to reopen business and [to ensure] the timeline is as short as it can be,” she said.

While many small businesses are struggling, Barton said there are some essential businesses doing well.

“We have quite a bit of essential services, so businesses are open,” she said. “Even if they have had to reduce some hours, a lot of our business owners are working diligently to keep their employees.”

Violette added that times of crisis can often lead to career changes, as people sometimes use the opportunity for growth.

“People try to focus on education and technical skills—going back to school and getting certificate programs,” she said.

Lieb said since Northwest Houston’s largest economic driver is the oil and gas industry, which has been hit heavily by the crisis, the area will likely require a longer recovery process.

“Not only are we dealing with COVID-19, but we are dealing with a downturn in the energy market,” he said. “That is going to be a longer recovery. Those job gains we had [after] the last energy downturn—we’ve lost those.”