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Lee County is a ‘job-seeker’ market

Unemployed workers choosing to opt out makes hiring hard

By CJ HADDAD - | Apr 14, 2021

cjhaddad@breezenewspapers.com

Is employment opt-out making it hard to hire workers?

Although the unemployment rate is at just 4% throughout the county, experts and local businesses are finding it challenging to fill positions in a variety of fields.

Officials at CareerSource Southwest Florida are reporting low traffic at their facilities and speculate many individuals are not presently looking for work due to a combination of local and federal benefits, as well as lingering health concerns at the workplace.

“Even though we have a very low unemployment rate region-wide, the unemployment numbers do not take into account individuals who are not actively seeking employment,” said CareerSource Southwest Florida spokesperson Janeth Castrejon.

When reaching out to more than 70 employers for CareerSource’s virtual job fair on April 15, they discovered many are struggling to find qualified candidates for positions.

“It’s not only affecting Cape Coral, but it seems to be a region-wide concern and a big challenge for employers right now,” Castrejon said.

Residents may have noticed the increase in hiring signs on storefront windows, with many of the “chain” stores posting for “hire on the spot” positions.

A major piece of the puzzle that could lend clues as to why individuals may not be seeking employment at a high rate could be Gov. Ron DeSantis’ extension of unemployment waivers.

In normal circumstances, to collect unemployment benefits, a person must prove they are actively looking for work. That provision has been waived and is currently slated to end April 24, but this is a deadline that has been moved many times.

“We do see individuals coming to our centers, but they’re not coming to actively look for work, they are more concerned about other areas in which we can help them, which could be going back to school for training or to print out documents to help continue their benefits.

“Couple that with the stimulus package that recently went out, and the extended unemployment benefits, now you’re looking at a scenario where it has become very clearly a job-seeker market.”

Castrejon said another variable playing a role in the current job climate is that over the course of the pandemic, many households with two-parent families made sacrifices when it came to childcare (availability, cost) and in many instances, resulted in mothers staying home.

Castrejon also noted the number of virtual positions offered by employers have not been as bountiful as anticipated.

With the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed into law on March 11, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistant benefit programs have been extended to Sept. 6, 2021. In addition, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides additional $300 for eligible individuals has been extended to the same date.

“Because of those extensions, it has a lot to do with the position of people deciding not to actively look into another job,” Castrejon said.

Another concern CareerSource hears from those they assist involves the safety of the workplace. Castrejon said many individuals are wary of possibly contracting COVID-19 or passing it along to a family member, especially in instances where the employer does not provide personal protective equipment or require social distancing.

“Health concerns are still very much in the forefront,” she said. “Hopefully the vaccine will alleviate some concern but it’s not fully there yet. There are no mandates in Florida, just recommendations. So that’s going to make individuals question coming back to work. And these are things people should be concerned about.”

CareerSource said there is a high need for trade workers and that construction continues to boom, as do the job positions, from laborer to site manager.

The hospitality industry also is facing a similar issue.

“There are still jobs that are needed. Restaurants are struggling to find cooks and servers. Hotels are struggling to find staff. Even though they have lost a lot of jobs, this is a struggling industry that’s trying to recover,” Castrejon said.

Fish Tale Grill and Merrick Seafood owners Kerry and Patrick Krieg have been experiencing a shortage in staff that has negatively affected their business.

The husband and wife said time after time they conduct interviews, plan to hire, and the potential employee never shows. They believe it has to do with unemployment benefits.

“We never ever in all of these years had an issue with hiring,” Kerry said. “I find that a lot of people are coming out for an interview — which takes time — and they’ll never come back again. No text, no message, you just don’t hear from them. This has gone on for me, probably the last four months. As soon as they forward my email that they’ve had correspondence and show that they’re looking for a job, they continue to collect unemployment.”

She said it’s frustrating taking the time to set up interviews and have them end up all for naught. The current staff is becoming overworked and shortages during busy dining room hours have created dysfunction.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Kerry said. “The restaurant industry is now back open and people are ready to come out. Now everybody’s busy and we’re all short-handed. “

Patrick said at times the wait staff and kitchen have to bear a workload greater than they’re used to and customers have become agitated at longer wait times.

“The staff gets overwhelmed working more than they’re accustomed to or can handle.”

Kerry added it’s having a trickle-down effect on the industry. She said finding servers and line staff has become increasingly more difficult compared to past experiences. It’s become frustrating for the pair.

“They’re getting (paid) to sit at home while the rest of us are busting our butt. You can’t find help at this point,” she said, adding she hopes to see a change in the trend soon or fears that current industry workers will become “burnt out.”

Over at popular Cape Coral bar The Dek, owner Betty Davis said she experienced similar staffing issues when restaurants and pubs began to open following restrictions.

For Davis, it’s about finding the right mixture of staffing needs in comparison to the amount of business coming in.

“It’s more difficult for us to decipher how much staff we need because of the inconsistency in the business,” she said. “We’ve been in business a long time and it’s always been consistent and (now) I don’t know what to expect.”

Davis did report a possible sliver of encouragement for local establishments looking for help, noting she’s interviewed many people from up north coming to Florida because their former hospitality industry employer is still shut down.

Being part of the industry in Southwest Florida, Davis’ eyes and ears tell her many businesses around the area are facing a hiring struggle.

“I’ve seen a lot of places post (on hospitality forums) asking if other places are having similar hiring issues,” Davis said. “I know it’s an ongoing thing.”

CareerSource’s virtual hiring event on April 15 runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information on positions available and to register, visit www.CareerSourceSouthwestFlorida.com.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj