Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bexar County reached an unemployment rate of 13.8%, as businesses closed for safety mitigations, according to Workforce Solutions.

In March 2020, the CARES Act was passed, giving extra unemployment compensation to those in need. In addition, the state of Texas provided an extra $300 weekly supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

According to a release by the state of Texas, on May 17, Gov. Abbott announced the end to Federal Pandemic-Related Unemployment Benefits, effective June 26.

As of October 2021, Bexar County unemployment was down to a rate of 4.4%, with Comal and Guadalupe counties reporting 3.8%, according to Workforce Solutions.

Despite this decrease in the rate, Maggie Titterington, president of The Chamber (Schertz-Cibolo-Selma Area), said local businesses have had a hard time with recruitment and retention.

“All are having a hard time securing employees,” Titterington said. “Especially the food industry and particularly restaurants. Even municipalities cannot seem to get the applicants that they saw pre-COVID[-19].”

Breaking down the numbers

Different groups around the state have monitored the unemployment rates and worked to break down the numbers of employees in each industry. Workforce Solutions is one of 28 workforce boards in Texas covering a 13-county region and running 16 career centers across the state, five of which are within Bexar County.

Workforce Solutions CEO Adrian Lopez said that since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of people in its career centers has more than doubled.

“Pre-pandemic levels, we were serving about 200,000 people in our centers,” Lopez said. “This fiscal year, from October of last year to this September, we had about 500,000 people that we served.”

Although the number of employment opportunities seems to be increasing, Lopez reiterated that the labor force in the San Antonio area is returning to pre-pandemic normalcy.

“Despite the fact that there are other parts of the country that are losing labor force, the labor force that we have here has actually increased since the pandemic,” Lopez said. “And we still have reached around a 4.3% rate for unemployment while pre-pandemic was about 3.5%, so we are pretty close to pre-pandemic levels.”

According to Lopez, the population of ages 24-plus in the labor force is estimated at around 70%-80%, while those ages 16-24 are participating at about 54%.

“That is potentially an age demographic that we can consider focusing on and thinking about how we can get them participating in the labor force,” Lopez said.

Another issue Lopez found was that certain employers in manufacturing, transportation, and other divisions do not spend as much time recruiting as food service, hotels and hospitality industries. On top of the job fluidity, the minimum wage in Texas has remained at $7.25, but the competitive nature of the labor force has pushed companies and business owners to offer more including higher pay and perks.

“The market has become extremely competitive for labor because you have got somebody making $16 an hour working at Bill Miller [Bar-B-Q], versus a manufacturing job trying to figure out how to adjust their wages and try to be competitive.”

The effect on businesses

Stephen Johns, owner of the Schertz Tropical Smoothie Café, has concerns about small businesses like his recruiting employees post-pandemic.

“Employment has definitely been a challenge,” Johns said. “I normally keep 30-35 employees at all times, and I am the lowest I have been in two years with 22 employees.”

According to Johns, smaller businesses struggle to be competitive because larger employers can offer a higher salary.

“You hope that you are treating your employees fairly and offering more incentives that hopefully help outweigh the hourly wage,” Johns said. “But what is helping small businesses right now is that while big businesses can offer $15-$17 an hour, their employees are dropping like flies.”

According to Paul Giandalia, business manager for Living Spaces in Cibolo, the main recruiting challenge for the new store was applicants not showing up for scheduled interviews.

“We ran a job fair for about two weeks with open interviews,” Giandalia said. “The one thing I would say we did notice was we were getting a lot of applicants that we had set up an interview time with, and then they wouldn’t show,” he said.

Living Spaces was aiming for nearly 90 employees to comfortably open the store on Dec. 16, Giandalia said.

“We are always looking to hire good people,” he said. “I would rather go 10% or 15% over projected labor than turn away somebody that would be a good find for the company.”

Resources to close the gap

Over the last year, Workforce Solutions has applied different strategies such as helping with resume writing or removing barriers such as childcare. The agency provides about $90 million a year in child care subsidies, Lopez said.

Both Workforce Solutions and The Chamber for Schertz-Cibolo-Selma have resources for employers to help them find industry specific employees. “We have many great staffing agencies in our chamber family such as VIP Staffing, Shorm Consulting, Patrice and Associates, Quality Response Medical and Trihydro Corp.,” Titterington said. “These companies cover a wide area of staffing to include hospitality, medical and office.”

Workforce Solutions also has opportunities for those looking for work. As for businesses, it is recommended that recruiters think creatively about incentives and consider the competitive market, Lopez and Titterington said. Some outside-of-the-box incentives are flexible work hours, health benefits, paid time off or a bonus for working a certain amount of time.

“With more challenges most likely coming our way in the months to come, I would encourage business owners to think outside of the box when considering the hiring process, meaning benefits or incentives,” Titterington sai