Finding employees proves difficult for many Liberty Hill businesses

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By Rachel Madison

If it seems like everywhere you look there’s a “Now Hiring” sign on display, you’re not wrong. In recent months, as businesses have worked to reopen and find a new normal in a post-pandemic world, finding, hiring and keeping good workers has proven to be a difficult task.

In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by the Texas Association of Businesses (TAB), 48 percent of businesses in Texas had at least one to five positions currently available, and the overwhelming majority—80 percent—of these businesses cited the $300 per month federal supplement workers were receiving as the reason they have been unable to fill their job openings.

“While the initial federal unemployment supplement was needed at the height of the pandemic, its continuance for those who are eligible to work is keeping businesses from unleashing the full might of the Texas economy,” said Glenn Hamer, CEO of TAB. “This survey is just a sample of what TAB has been hearing for weeks from organizations all throughout Texas and backs up the recent call by the United States Chamber of Commerce to put an end to this federal supplement. With vaccines readily available to anyone who wants one, it is time for the President and Congress to realize that this policy is a barrier to enhanced employment in Texas and throughout the country.”

The Liberty Hill Independent conducted its own survey of local businesses to understand what the current hiring environment is like across the community. Respondents included business owners in the retail, cleaning, real estate, restaurant and transportation industries.

One hundred percent of respondents said they were currently hiring, with 76 percent stating they had one to five open positions, and 23 percent stating they had six to 10 open positions. The average length of time these positions have gone unfilled is two months, according to the survey. The businesses surveyed have starting wages ranging from $10 per hour up to $22 per hour but are still having a hard time finding employees.

One respondent said “government aid and lack of child care” was the reason they were unable to find employees, while another said “no one wants to work [in this] crazy market.” Another respondent had a similar argument, stating that people are “happy receiving stimulus checks,” while another said because of unemployment benefits, “people just don’t want to work for their money anymore.” Another respondent added that the prolonged unemployment benefits were causing a lot of the hiring difficulties.

“Even at $15 [an] hour for 40 hours a week, resulting in $600 [per] week, people are earning more from government benefits to stay home than to get back to work,” wrote the respondent. “Three hundred dollars [a] week alone comes from federal aid on top of the state aid received. There is no incentive for people to go back to work unless they are earning more than $15 [an] hour. These increases in costs have led to inflated prices for customers.”

Brittney Ortiz, co-owner of Liberty Hill-based J & Co. Electric, said finding people who want to work has been her biggest challenge.

“When we do get people who want to work, they want us to pay them $20 an hour, and that’s difficult to do for someone who hasn’t been trained [as an electrician],” she said. “We’re a small business—we can’t afford to pay someone $20 an hour with no experience.”

Ortiz added that finding good employees in the trades was problematic even before the pandemic began, because a lot of jobs in the trades were overlooked, which just added to their hiring troubles after COVID-19 started.

“Schools have been pushing so hard for kids to go to college, and that’s great for a lot of people, but not everybody is going to go to college,” she said. “People now are realizing they can have a really good career and make a good living supporting their family by doing a trade, but that got put on the back burner and looked down on for a long time. When we got into the pandemic, all the government aid handed out and extra money given every week—we couldn’t compete. Why would you go to work when you can stay at home and make more money than if you were working?”

Chandrika Prajapati, owner of Parker’s Corner Market, said she has struggled to hire employees since COVID-19 began.

“When COVID started, we would post a job and get several people applying, but they would show up for a day and then file for unemployment benefits with the Texas Workforce Commission, even though they clearly didn’t have enough hours filled to qualify for those benefits. It became a strenuous task for us to keep track of who filed for what.”

Prajapati said once the presidential election hit in November, it got even harder to find staff.

“We were fortunate enough to find a good candidate at the beginning of the year, and I’m not sure how we lucked out, but that has helped us hold up our operations,” she added. “In the meantime, we are looking for more employees. Lots of people have come and gone, but no one is sticking. We’ve paid enormous amounts this year on Indeed and LinkedIn for job posts. Lots of people apply, but then we get no response from them or they will hang up on us. They’re not interested in working. People do make a concerted effort to apply for jobs, and then they put the blame on employers.”

The lack of employees has made an impact across the board, Prajapati said, adding that Coca-Cola deliveries have been cancelled because there weren’t enough drivers and their meat supply has substantially been reduced due to shortages.

“We’ve had to put more strain on our employees, and we don’t want to burn them out because they now spend extra hours working,” she said. “My husband and I are helping, and my kids are even coming in and helping to stock the store.”

John Johnston, president of the Liberty Hill Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors and owner of Dahlia Cafe, said the last year has been hard on his restaurant because of the lack of employees.

“We’ve had a hard time,” he said. “We had to stop serving breakfast because we need a shift that can start work at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to open by 7 a.m., and that takes a whole other crew. The crew we have now can only cover lunch and dinner. Scheduling has become a lot more difficult.”

In addition to nixing breakfast, Johnston said the Dahlia menu has also had to change to accommodate a smaller staff.

“We’ve taken off items that require more labor to prepare, like the cobblers,” he said. “We hated to take those off, but they’re so time consuming to make. We’ve adjusted the menu according to what is more expedient and available.”

When the pandemic began, Johnston said he got creative to keep his employees busy. Even when the restaurant was closed, employees got to work painting, cleaning and doing maintenance work around the restaurant.

“We kept all of our employees that wanted to stay and kept them busy,” he said.

Prajapati believes the main reason people aren’t motivated to work is because of the government benefits being dispersed.

“Until there is a concerted effort from the Texas Workforce Commission to reevaluate what people are receiving benefits, they’re not going to be working.”

Prajapati also said workers are expecting to be paid more for entry-level positions, but if she has to pay unexperienced workers a higher rate, then she has to adjust hourly pay for her experienced workers as well.

“Unfortunately, I have to put that cost back on my customers because I can’t afford to pay my employees such high salaries,” she said.

“People can literally make more money staying home than they could going to work,” Johnston said. “How can you fight that?”

“If you look up and down Highway 29, every place is hiring,” Ortiz added. “It shows there’s a huge problem. So many people are still saying they’re unemployed, but a lot of them look at the available jobs and say, ‘I am not going to do that.’ It’s a sad time.”

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