Where are the workers? As economy recovers from pandemic, many jobs remain unfilled

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — More jobs are being added to the United States economy and the unemployment rate is falling, but when it comes to finding help, many local business owners say they are still struggling.

Initial unemployment claims in the Commonwealth of Virginia are down 75% from the first week of April 2020 and nearly a third of the 916,000 jobs added in America in March were from the leisure and hospitality industry.

If you ask restaurant owners in Virginia Beach, they are still awaiting the influx of applicants.

Virginia Beach Restaurant Association Executive Director Stacey Shiflet estimates there are about 200 openings citywide right now in their industry — one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The members of the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association are in need of employees in all areas of their restaurants. From front of the house, hostesses, servers and bartenders, to back of the house — all areas of the kitchen,” Shiflet said.

She said the shortage of employees is at “an all-time high” and blamed the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the additional and ongoing federal assistance given to people.

Last month, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan which provided direct payments of $1,400 per qualifying individual as well as an extra $300 a week for those on unemployment through August.

However, Robert McNab, director of the Dragas Center at Old Dominion University, said so far there is only broad evidence to support that’s why people are choosing to not re-enter the labor force.

“When you expand unemployment benefits into almost the fall, there are going to be some workers on the margin that are probably going to say, it’s better to stay at home than go back to work,” McNab said.

He said it also can’t be ignored that people will pass up lower-paying jobs when options are more plentiful.

“When you start to see hiring accelerating again, which we are starting to see, and you are starting to see that unemployment rates are declining, laborers in the labor force are going to become a bit more choosy about where they come to work. They are going to demand a higher wage,” McNab said.

McNab said 4.5 million Americans left the labor force during the pandemic, but he expects them all to return as long as the vaccine remains effective.

“We forecast that almost all those jobs will be back by the end of 2021,” McNab said. “The U.S. is poised to become the engine of economic recovery for the globe in 2012 and beyond.”