Dripping Springs, New Braunfels, Hill Country: How the pandemic has made their labor shortages worse

Business

Nearly a month after green light to reopen, many in service industry are having a hard time staffing up

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Businesses in Texas have been allowed to fully reopen for nearly a month, but many of them in the service industry — like restaurants, retail shops and hotels — are having a hard time staffing up.

Business owners and leaders in New Braunfels told KXAN’s media partners at the Austin Business Journal about experiencing a worsening labor shortage.

KXAN discovered that’s also the case in other areas, like Dripping Springs and parts of the Hill Country.

“We definitely had a labor shortage everywhere before the pandemic,” says Paul Fletcher, CEO of Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area, which covers nine counties: Llano, Burnet, Blanco, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell, Bastrop, Lee and Fayette.

“We’re hearing from employers now that they’re having a hard time finding the people they need. As recently as last week we’re hearing employers say that,” Fletcher says.

Kirtan Patel has seen the problem worsen. He’s the owner and general manager of the Sleep Inn & Suites in Dripping Springs.

“Labor’s never been easy in Dripping Springs. It’s never been this difficult, though,” he says as he enters his typically busiest time of year.

“With business picking up, you know, we have to make sure that we’re supplying the same quality and service for our guests,” Patel says. “And it’s definitely a strain on myself and my current staff.”

Dripping Springs Chamber of Commerce President Susan Kimball says many of her members are experiencing the same problem.

She points to many factors: One being that many of their typical service workers commute from other cities, as they can’t afford to live in Dripping Springs making entry level wages and have been priced out of housing. And it’s a challenge to find an employee willing to drive that distance.

Second, she says many entry level positions don’t pay as well as current unemployment benefits.

Jeremy Durnford agrees.

“It really sucks. But you know, a lot of people were making more money on unemployment than they were when they went back to the restaurant,” says Durnford, who worked in the industry for 20 years.

After being furloughed at the start of the pandemic, Durnford says he wasn’t offered his salaried position back but an hourly wage instead.

“It wasn’t making money, it wasn’t paying the bills,” he says.

Durnford says while being furloughed, he also started thinking about opportunities for growth.

“It got to a point where, you know, there’s not a whole lot of growth past general management-ship in restaurants,” he says.

That’s why he started researching other careers that he could begin certification for online.

“While they were in between jobs, waiting for those hospitality jobs to come back, there were lots of online learning opportunities made available to allow people to upskill, to maybe try to change industries if they wanted to change industries,” echoes Fletcher.

While Workforce Solutions Capital Area, which covers Travis County, says their data doesn’t necessarily show a labor shortage in this area right now, they are hearing similar stories from some of their program trainees who are leaving food service to seek more job stability and opportunities.

Durnford says COVID-19 safety was also a priority for him — he wasn’t ready to be in close contact with customers. He ultimately got certified online to become a health insurance agent.

“Never saw it coming. You know, if you had talked to me a year ago I would never, never have put myself where I’m sitting right now. I was going to be in the restaurant industry forever.”

Patel says he’s increased pay and dropped experience requirements but still can’t get applicants.

“I’m getting close to the point where if someone shows up, and they seem like a decent person, and they seem someone that is, you know, trainable, I’d be willing to give them a shot at this point,” he says.

Patel says business still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels but he may have to consider spending even more money to ease the burden on his current staff.

“Can I afford to go and outsource all my laundry? Can I look to temporary labor agencies?” he says.

Patel says interested applicants can email him at SleepInnDrippingSprings@gmail.com.

Texas Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area holds weekly virtual hiring events here.

Employers can sign up for a free virtual booth here.

You can also find job openings through the program here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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