Tony Vila has seen all the headlines about the struggles businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, are having finding workers.
But as someone who’d just spent nine months searching for a job, as someone who’d sent out at least 40 resumes each month since losing his job in August 2020, the headlines didn’t line up with his experience, Vila said.
Vila had been so pressed to find work he took jobs officiating pet funerals while awaiting calls about applications, he said.
“It’s been a heck of a journey,” Vila said. “I’ve never had a hard time finding work. I was always one of the people that would get hired right away. It’s just honestly been a real eye-opening experience for me.”
As cases of coronavirus infection continue to decline and life slowly returns to some form of pre-pandemic normal, workers and businesses both in Galveston County and across the country find themselves in the middle of a nationwide conversation about what work should look like.
TOO MUCH SUPPORT?
Business advocates, including the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce, successfully called for the elimination of an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits, arguing the money was dissuading people from returning to work.
But even some critics of the extra unemployment benefits, such as Dennis Bryd, acknowledge the problem is far more complicated and will take more than ending those benefits to fix.
“It’s going to take until the first or second quarter of next year for everything to stabilize,” said Byrd, owner of The Spot, 3204 Seawall Blvd., and hotels including DoubleTree by Hilton Galveston Beach, 1702 Seawall Blvd.
Extra unemployment benefits likely play some role in the labor shortage, but it’s just a small percentage contributing to the larger issue, Byrd said.
Byrd over the weekend spoke to a former employee who left the hospitality industry in 2013 to enter the property management industry, he said. She told him she’d been working and busy until July 2020, when she was furloughed.
MORE THAN MONEY
Since being furloughed, she’s been actively looking for work but is taking advantage of unemployment benefits to find a job where she feels appreciated, he said.
“She said she had felt under-appreciated,” Byrd said. “And so she was going to find an employer in a field she wanted to be in but also someone who was going to appreciate her.”
Some advocates for workers went a step further than Byrd, however, arguing all people want to work but that benefits have gone a long way toward helping people cover the basic costs of living and not enough businesses are offering living wages, advocates said.
When advocates use a term like living wage, that doesn’t mean a wage high enough to save and send children to college or enough to buy a home, said Amy Knop-Narbutis, a research and data director at Every Texan, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates for equitable public policies.
“That’s just the cost of meeting basic needs — food, child care, transportation and rent,” she said.
Different organizations will include slightly different items in their calculators, she said.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
But one such calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds the living wage for a single adult with no children would be about $14.33 per hour, or $29,807 annually.
A family of four needs two adults both making at least $19.64 an hour, $81,702 a year, according to the MIT calculator.
The calculation accounts for the cost of food, child care, medical care, housing and transportation, according to the calculator.
“When you look at Galveston County in particular, you’ve got that combination of increasing cost of living and flat wages,” said Jay Malone, spokesman for the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
Higher unemployment benefits weren’t just helping hospitality workers but also employees in fields that aren’t yet back to full operations, such as the cruise industry, Malone said. Cutting off benefits for them early could be devastating.
WANT TO WORK
“It’s just a cynical view of people,” Malone said. “People want to work. But it’s also not a ton of money we’re talking about. People are getting maybe $400 or $500 per week. How many are getting that and saying it’s enough?”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, in announcing the end of the extra unemployment benefits, mentioned that almost 45 percent of jobs listed paid more than $15.50 per hour, and 76 percent paid more than $11.50 per hour.
So only 45 percent of open jobs, even by the governor’s own numbers, would meet the criteria for a living wage, Malone said.
“If you’re making $12 per hour and looking for places to live on the island, it’s really hard to believe that person isn’t doubling up on full-time jobs,” Malone said. “Even on the mainland, the options are limited.”
Byrd isn’t quite sure what role increased wages play in employee interest in a job, he said. Byrd’s businesses had been increasing wages even before the pandemic, but the shift hasn’t had a major effect on talent acquisition.
“It’s just not enough to see a noticeable change,” Byrd said.
The increases have kept existing employees happy but haven’t generated scores of new applications, he said.
Stories about businesses that can’t find workers run counter to what some in Galveston County have experienced in their searches.
Vila, for instance, lost his job in sales for an oilfield supply company in August 2020 because of COVID, he said. In the months since then, Vila estimates he sent out a minimum of 40 applications a month and would sometimes get a second or third interview but never an offer.
The jobs Vila did find to apply to also listed salaries lower than what he’d been paid before the pandemic, he said.
Vila’s unemployment benefits were set to expire soon, and he was offered a job just a day after his interview with The Daily News, so he was less concerned about expiring unemployment benefits than some, he said.
But he did acknowledge that he left the hospitality industry years ago because of low pay and inflexible scheduling.
“I didn’t think about getting back into it because you’re working holidays and weekends and evenings,” he said.
Texas City resident Carolyn Bowman, 72, also doesn’t believe businesses can’t find workers, she said.
Bowman has been furloughed since March 2020 from her job working security for a cruise line contractor and believes companies won’t hire her because of her age, she said. Bowman has applied in the hospitality industry, which has lamented lack of willing workers.
“You can’t tell me they aren’t discriminating against me,” he said. “I’m fully qualified. I’ve been to college. I’m just not hearing back. I can’t even get an interview.”
Bowman estimates she has submitted about 20 applications a month since March 2020, she said.
Policymakers have to ask themselves if they’re going to cut off benefits, what alternatives do you have that will provide families with the basics, Malone asked.