Now hiring. Those words have become a sign of the times, with business after business seeking employees to come back to work as Texas continues to emerge from the pandemic.

“The phone calls just don’t stop. Employers are just really struggling to get people to come back to work, and especially in the hospitality industry — restaurants and hotels,” said Kelly Hall, president and CEO of the Longview Chamber of Commerce.

The Associated Press reported this month that job openings rose 8% to 8.1 million in March, while a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business showed a record 44% of small businesses had jobs they couldn’t fill.

Anup Patel, technology and expansion director for Longview-based 281 Lodging Group, said his company is facing hiring problems. The firm operates 12 hotels in the city and surrounding areas.

“We are facing a lot of challenges with new hires across the board, from housekeeping, to front desk,” he said. “Housekeeping has always been a challenge, but recently it has become quite difficult to find people for both front desk and housekeeping positions. A lot of people are calling for interviews, and maybe one out of five scheduled interviews will actually show up. We have also hired people, and they seem like good candidates, but after hiring, they also do not show up to work on their first day.”

Hall said other local businesses are reporting similar issues. Solutions to those problems are the focus of roundtable discussions the chamber is hosting in conjunction with Workforce Solutions. The first ResET — Re-Employ East Texas roundtable in May focused on restaurants. The next, on June 3, will focus on the hospitality industry. The free event is limited to 35 people.

The first roundtable represented more than 1,500 jobs, Hall said.

“We’ve got to get people back into the workplace,” she said, explaining that the roundtable discussions give businesses an opportunity to talk about their hiring projections and what they’re doing to recruit workers — increased pay, sign-on bonuses or 90-day work bonuses for instance.

“They’re looking for what are those best practices,” Hall said.

Some of those incentives haven’t been enough to get people to come back to work. The Longview Chamber of Commerce joined other chambers and organizations around the state to ask Gov. Greg Abbott to eliminate extra federal unemployment pay with the goal of encouraging people to return to work. The governor announced this past week that $300 weekly payments will end June 26.

Kevin Hilchey, founder of Longview-based hotel group Lodging Host, said his company’s hiring pay rate was above minimum wage before the pandemic. It was lowered when COVID-19 restrictions began and hotels saw significant business disruptions.

Now, the hiring wage is almost $2 more than before the pandemic, Hilchey said.

“In some locations, we’re offering bonuses to employees who bring us new hires,” he said. Some hotel locations offer $500 sign-on bonuses for taking a job and staying for a certain amount of time. Patel also said his company has increased base pay rates “just to get people in the door.”

“It’s a different world out there,” Hilchey said. “Costs are escalating in every segment of the economy, and these kinds of things are going to create an escalation of costs in hotels.”

The hotel group used federal paycheck protection funds to keep its people employed after the initial shutdown in 2020, Hilchey said, but the chain still lost some employees because they could make almost as much money working as they do with extra federal unemployment benefits, he said. Hotels suffered without guests staying in the rooms, but Hilchey said they kept employees working on maintenance and deep-cleaning projects.

“One of the major casualties for us was our management training program,” Hilchey said, which identifies employees who have the potential to move to mid-level management. It’s been difficult to move those people up because there aren’t people to replace them in lower-level jobs, he said.

He said his industry also is facing additional hiring pressures because of how immigration restrictions in recent years have affected a potential employee pool. People from Mexico and Eastern Bloc countries would come to work on temporary work visas to help meet seasonal demands, filling jobs that many “existing citizens” don’t want, Hilchey said.

Restaurants and retailers around Longview are flying “now hiring” banners, with Posados recently posting a sign on its doors asking for patience because the restaurant is short-staffed. Jalapeno Tree temporarily closed on Mondays for the same reason.

“We’re seeing the same thing pretty much everybody else is seeing,” said Jimmy McFadden II, district team leader for Ollie’s Bargain Outlet in Longview. The company has staged job fairs and social media campaigns to encourage people to apply at the retailer. He said the business might sometimes call five people for an interview — but maybe one person will show up.

A few months ago, Ollie’s employee Julie Rash jumped at the chance to get back to work. She said she’d been let go from Stage after the COVID-19 shutdown began. Then, she said she tried but was unable to collect unemployment benefits, saying she tried to register for benefits but wasn’t able to get through.

And she couldn’t find another job.

“That was the hard part — nobody was hiring,” Rash said. A former co-worker helped her hire on at Ollie’s.

“I love it,” she said.

McFadden said he believes as the state opens up, more “people will be excited to get back to work.”

Hilchey said hotels are expecting a busy summer season, with a “pent-up demand” for travel as COVID-19 vaccinations are increasing.

“That’s going to add additional pressure on hotels, and we need staff now to train for those summer jobs, and we’re just not getting the response we had hoped for,” Hilchey said.

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