A year ago, Tony Stafford, like many restaurateurs globally, faced the grim reality of empty restaurant tables when stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic went into effect. That reality led many restaurant owners, and other businesses, to lay off or significantly cut back on staff.
Now, with restaurant doors again open and consumer confidence returning in part because of the rollout and availability of coronavirus vaccines, Stafford finds himself on a desperate hunt for more employees so he can get those tables filled up with patrons who are ready to get out and enjoy their seafood favorite.
“Last year, we were asking people not to forget about restaurants. Now, I’m telling people to come and work at restaurants,” he said.
Stafford has gotten creative in his pursuit, appealing to teachers and first responders who are looking for a second stream of income and in need of flexible hours. He has begun working with an independent human resources agency to help him with recruiting.
“We’re competing with unemployment [benefits], which we’ve never had to do before,” he said. “With the federal stimulus additional money, they can make well over $700. For us that’s $100 more than what they would make at $15/hour.”
To compete with that, Stafford is paying more to his current employees. He is starting cooks at $17 to $19 an hour, and his servers are now averaging around $30/hour, including tips, he said. Although Stafford said he and many of his restaurateur friends were losing out on employees because of the high unemployment benefits, county economic development staff said they have not seen that trend widely reported.
While the lead-up to summer usually has returning college students looking for jobs, that wave hasn’t hit this year. And that unexpected drought, unfortunately, coincides with a time when the general public, for the most part, is more eager to get out of the house than perhaps ever.
“People are wanting to come back out, but we just don’t have the staff to [support] that,” he said.
A year ago, Loudoun felt the job impacts of the pandemic more quickly than some of its sister counties in Virginia, especially considering the county’s hospitality industry. In Loudoun, said Timothy Aylor, a senior economist with the Virginia Employment Commission, unemployment claims last spring went up much faster than statewide. Throughout Virginia, unemployment claims on March 14, 2020, went from 2,000, to 95,000 just a month later on April 11, 2020.
But if Loudoun’s economy felt the immediate impacts of the pandemic more quickly, it has also had areas of enviable strength, and is set to come roaring back even faster.
Many sectors of the touch economy are still struggling to find their footing more than a year into the global pandemic, but other industries locally are reporting not only rebounds, but tremendous growth, said Buddy Rizer, executive director of Loudoun’s Department of Economic Development. Loudoun’s Data Center Alley had a particular banner year, with the global population more dependent on the internet than ever.
“In a typical year, we have 15 fast-track projects for data centers. This year we had 30,” he said.
The technology sector in general has been strong for jobs locally, with many of those companies among the first to move to full telework last spring, and also among the first to gradually bring workers back into the office.
The rebound is perhaps most evident in the number of job listings in Loudoun County, with Workforce Development Manager Nancy Evanko reporting a solid increase over a year ago.
“New job postings by date are a really good indicator of how things are going. For the last several weeks we are above the new job postings where we were a year ago. That’s really the first time I’ve seen it for this length of time,” she said.
Unemployment filings now are down around 75% from last year’s peak, Aylor said, and in Loudoun they are down 90% from the April 11, 2020, high. However, job growth statewide is all but flat, with only 800 payroll employment jobs added statewide this March, he said.
Although Loudoun has seen its unemployment rate double from just before the pandemic hit last spring, from 2% to the current figure of 4.3%, the county is in an enviable position compared with the rest of the state and even the U.S. as a whole, Aylor said. Statewide, the unemployment rate stands at 5.1%, while the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 6%.
Workforce experts have also seen changes in who is looking for a new job.
Loudoun County offers many programs at its Workforce Resource Center, where the staff has, like many business owners, had to pivot in the past year to serve their clients virtually or by appointment. Last summer, Workforce Team Leader Shelly Rodriguez said she saw lots of service industry employees who were out of work, reaching out to the staff to find new opportunities.
Lately, it’s been more seasoned workers, some 50 years old and up, who are looking to leave one industry for another. Some, Rodriguez said, desire flexibility for accommodating the needs of their school-age children, while others have sought to leave an industry altogether after living through COVID-19.
As the center serves both job seekers and employers, business owners have also been actively reaching out to WRC staff of late to fill staffing needs, including typical spring and summer seasonal jobs, as well as the ongoing need in the healthcare industry, Rodriguez said.
Bullish on Loudoun
A year ago, back when the pandemic showed no end in sight, Rizer said he and his staff were concerned the county could lose up to 40% of its businesses. Those predictions proved, thankfully, to be way off, with the number of businesses lost only in the teens, with staff still fine-tuning the numbers and doing its research.
Rizer emphasized that no one in Loudoun County government would wave the recovery flag until all industries have rebounded from the pandemic, and he acknowledged that that could be a few years yet for the hospitality industry.
But he sees lots of reasons for optimism. He offered the prediction that Loudoun County could easily see 6,000 to 8,000 new jobs in just the next year alone.
“I’m very bullish on our future, especially once we get past COVID and roll out new Metro developments and provide even more opportunity, I’m pretty encouraged by what I see,” he said. “We’re going to need to continue to nurture those who have been the most critically impacted. They still have a long way ahead. But because of the great diverse economic base we’ve built over the last decade and a half, and the way we’ve evolved our economy, I think we will continue to see that growth. I think it will be a pretty universal recovery.”
For more information and resources for both job seekers and employers go to loudoun.gov/wrc.