Louisiana businesses are struggling to fill service jobs. Here’s why that might be happening.

The Advocate

Baton Rouge resident Amber Jones was elated to discover she was pregnant, especially after a tough year when she battled COVID-19 at home. The news of a baby on the way prompted her to get more focused about applying for a new job — especially one that pays more than minimum wage.

“I don’t want to work in fast food,” said Jones, 19, having done it before and feeling unappreciated.

With her fiancee paying the bills as a landscaper, Jones has been taking online classes at Baton Rouge Community College to earn her GED, while having difficulty applying for a variety of positions, from restaurants to cleaning jobs, and also at local casinos but found jobs there would require her to be 21 years old. She has worked previously braiding hair and as a home health caregiver, being paid minimum wage, but hopes to earn at least $9 an hour to help with finances, be independent and care for her child. She aspires to be a lawyer.

“I know that I’m a hard-working person. But nowadays you have to be certified to do anything,” she said. “I always look for ‘no experience’ (required) jobs. There’s a lot of jobs open to apply for, but they don’t ever get back to you, even if it’s on their website. They say we already hired somebody.”

Contrast her trouble getting a job against the struggle businesses are having finding workers — some of whom have pivoted toward pursuing better-paying careers or furthering their education during the pandemic.

At The Velvet Cactus, General Manager Joel Justice has been working in the kitchen to help with staff shortage, and this week is preparing for one of the American Mexican restaurant industry’s biggest times of year, the Cinco de Mayo celebration. He’s even cut the most time-consuming items off the menu to ease the kitchen’s burden.

Before the pandemic, cooks made roughly $11 an hour, but now are making between $13 to $18 hourly depending on experience and tenure with the company.

“Everybody has gotten a raise at least once and we’re trying to incentivize staff referrals. We want to take care of the people that we have,” Justice said. “And I get it, it’s hot, hard work.”

“We’ve been doing open job fairs every Wednesday, except for this week,” Justice said. “I had interviewed 19 people and two people were offered jobs $2 an hour more than they asked for, but they never showed up for training.”

And there lies the disconnect between workers and businesses that employers are trying to overcome now that pandemic restrictions are being lifted and activity is accelerating. The pandemic hit the service sector hardest, leaving hundreds of thousands jobless early during the lockdown and at the mercy of their savings, government relief checks and unemployment compensation, while professional jobs remained largely in tact.https://c923e863f874d4cf96db40e3d142b13b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

In some ways, the labor market is splitting itself towards either highly specialized jobs or low-wage service jobs.

“There are two types of jobs open right now, high-wage jobs we don’t have enough people for like those who are nurses or have a CDL drivers license. And retail jobs,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, senior director of business intelligence at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. 

“I do think that there’s a skills mismatch; that’s why we put out a short-term training guide,” designed to inform jobseekers and employers about educational offerings for “upskilling and reskilling,” he said.

“The pandemic is terrible but it might spark more entrepreneurship,” he added.

With the passage of two coronavirus relief packages that put checks in people’s pockets and increased unemployment benefits, “workers on the lower end of the spectrum (temporarily) felt more secure financially in their entire life, so they had more flexibility,” Fitzgerald said.

Households are not in such bad shape as during the Great Recession and consumer spending has remained strong, he said.

“There’s not scarcity or pressure,” he said.

Some businesses blame the federal relief payments and larger unemployment benefits as a disincentive for workers to get back into the labor force, though tens of thousands across the state had trouble even qualifying for compensation and many never received a dime.

“We’ve got quite a bit of work and we’re just looking to fill some positions.

 It’s been very, very difficult to hire people here,” said Jake Scheramie, general manager of Houma-based Encore Food Services, which is looking to hire 50 workers as night cooks and galley hands on offshore oil platforms. “We have tons of people who apply and then they don’t show up for the interview. (I think) they want to say they applied to maintain unemployment (benefits),” he said.

“Employers will likely have to wait until September when the (current extra $300 federal unemployment) enhancement expires, but they will also likely just have to pay higher wages,” Fitzgerald said.

One problem for restaurants and the service sector is “many of these jobs are often snapped up by college students,” said Jay Ducote, owner of Gov’t Taco in Baton Rouge. “Not all of the students at LSU and Southern are physically going to class — some are living at home and going to class online.

“Things won’t get back to normal until we get some of those college kids looking for a job back,” Ducote said.

New Orleans area native Anna Groom, 24, saw first-hand the liberating impact of the extra $600 unemployment benefit that was in effect last summer and more recently the $1,400 federal relief check Americans received. But that didn’t keep her from heading back to work and pursuing a longer-term dream.

“That felt like a lot of money,” said Groom, whose car was bought for only $500. “I would have loved to have been in the position to flip it. You could make some financial moves for $1,400, but it’s just not enough to just not go to work,” she said.

Groom, who has worked as a receptionist in a law firm, in life insurance and in retail sales, was a substitute teacher before the pandemic, taking home roughly $8.50 an hour. She moved out of her apartment and in with her mother to save money.

“I was in limbo for a while quarantining, but I just got really antsy and unhappy with being so unproductive,” she said.

Groom started working in restaurants for the first time in August, at a Creole restaurant and at a French Quarter fine-dining establishment, upwards of 60 hours a week combined. She recently left the Creole restaurant to focus on fine dining, where she got a raise. She’s able to make about three times what she made as a substitute teacher.

“I’m in the process of saving; I don’t like to struggle unless I have to,” Groom said. “This is just a transition period. I’ve never been around people with this kind of money in my life and it’s only going to get better,” she said of the job in fine dining.

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Her dream is to sell her art as prints in a gallery.

The economic recovery is proving to be one in which businesses are the ones under pressure and are having to adapt and step up their efforts.

In addition to offering employees bonuses for referring workers and increasing its pay, Gov’t Taco decided earlier this month to close on Mondays, in addition to Sundays, until at least through Memorial Day.

“We were having to call people in who were not scheduled to be on,” Ducote said. That led to employees getting overtime working Friday and Saturday. “Friday and Saturday are way more important to us than Monday,” he said.

“It seems like it’s probably a nationwide problem. I’ve talked to chef friends in Texas, Alabama, Washington, D.C. — it’s really hard to find good reliable help that wants to come to work right now,” Ducote said. “It’s been a detriment to the restaurant industry, I know for sure. But grocery stores, retail, landscape companies, really across the board.”

The chamber’s Fitzgerald analyzed local job postings in a recent report. While truck drivers and registered nurses were in most demand, customer service representatives came in at No. 3 across Louisiana as of February. After that, there were several thousand job openings for first-line supervisors, retail sales workers, fast food and store stockers, according to statewide data compiled by BRAC.

There were hundreds of jobs across the state paying less than $15 an hour posted on the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s online job portal. The state agency boasts there are thousands of job openings and is regularly hosting job fairs.

Sanderson Farms is looking to fill 50 jobs in Hammond at $14.95 per hour for line worker operators. The job requires a high school diploma and experience working on a meat processing line is preferred, according to the mid-April job posting. But the work itself is described as “physically demanding” and employees should expect to be working either in 55-degree buildings or outside at temperatures that include the heat of the summer.

Meanwhile, a greeter or concierge at Ochsner, the largest health system in the state, could get pay between $21,000 and $39,000 per year, or between $10.77 and $19.50 per hour.

Valluzzo Companies, which operates 78 McDonald’s restaurants in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, has been trying to hire workers for months. The company recently hosted a drive-thru job fair in the Hammond area, and its Drusilla location in Baton Rouge was touting $10-an-hour wages.

“We’re trying to think outside of the box,” said Megan Pratt, spokesperson for Valluzzo.

Valluzzo also offers tuition assistance programs and next-day pay so employees don’t have to wait two weeks to get a check, alongside “premium pay” for certain shifts.

Workers willing to go in the Gulf of Mexico serving food to oil platform contractors can get a premium, even for entry-level work at Encore Food Services. A major hurdle is that individuals must pass a drug test, even for medical marijuana, as a requirement for the job. 

“We have a pay range from minimum wage all the way to $18 to $20 an hour” and provide health insurance, said Scheramine, the Encore general manager. 

The 12-hour shifts for two-week stints, with two weeks off in between, means that even an $8-an-hour job could yield more hours and higher pay than a traditional service job, he said. “We’ve got guys who have lawn care or pressure-washing services on their weeks off,” he said. 

Baton Rouge resident Lacey Dyess decided to pivot when the pandemic hit last year.

Dyess, 28, had been working full-time in a court reporting agency job, and was juggling three part-time jobs as a server, barista and bartender for various restaurants. Including the side gigs, she was earning roughly $47,000, with about  $32,000 of that from the full-time court reporting job.

But she didn’t have health insurance and was afraid of getting sick. When she got called by local eateries, more often than not she turned them down, asking herself: “Do I want to risk it for the biscuit?”

“I would say if I got sick it would truly bankrupt me,” she said. “There was a period of time in the beginning of the pandemic where some of the servers or bartenders were getting COVID-19 themselves, alongside everyone on shift with them.”

Dyess dropped the part-time jobs, reworked her budget and is focused on community college and transferring to a four-year university.

“I started to take a look at where I am now and where I need to be to become financially comfortable and decided that I would have to finish my degree,” Dyess said. 

Zachary resident Janice Spears, 35 and mother of three children, was working as a security guard for a local prison when she resigned to get emergency surgery last year. She rehabilitated herself over the past year, even without short-term disability. Spears was hesitant to return to work at the prison during the pandemic because she didn’t want her children to get sick and had to teach them school remotely.

“Wages are important and the work environment — is it safe and clean — right now you have to think about your health,” she said.

The $13-an-hour prison job paid the bills, but was hardly a “livable wage,” she said. “It should have been more pay because of the job description,” she said.

“I was debating about going back to school but I’ve got bills to pay too,” she said.

Spears had one semester of college, but had to drop out to take care of a child who is partially blind in both eyes. She rents an apartment and has been selling wreaths and other crafts to pay her bills. She did not receive any unemployment benefits.

Now that all her children are back in school and her son had medical surgery she paid for out of pocket because Medicaid doesn’t cover it, she’s looking to jump back into the workforce.

She’s leaning towards becoming a blackjack dealer at a local casino, which pays $13 an hour and offers free 8-week-long training.

“I’m not being choosy at this point,” Spears said.

Spears expects to go back to college if she can’t land a job soon and is leaning towards a nursing certification.

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