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Even during the COVID-19 economic downturn, some small business owners say they struggle to find workers

Even during the COVID-19 economic downturn, some small business owners say they struggle to find workers

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Businessman David Bender says his lawn care service has come through the COVID-19 pandemic so far in pretty good shape, if only he could find all the workers he needs.

“We are not quite where I anticipated being this year, but we are up from last year and financially in a good position,” said Bender, whose business, Weeded! Lawn Service, employs 25 people and provides lawn care services around the Richmond region.

While work has remained solid this summer, Bender said his search for workers has been unexpectedly challenging for this kind of economic environment, when tens of thousands of people remain jobless because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Literally, our biggest challenge this year has been finding people to work,” Bender said. “I have put more effort into finding people to work than I ever have before, and I almost want to say I have been more unsuccessful than I ever have been before.”

Bender said he has been looking for about five to seven employees to help out with lawn care services such as weeding, mowing and hedge trimming as the summer ends, then to help with leaf cleanup in the fall and possibly snow shoveling during the winter. He said he has advertised widely and even reached out to food pantries to try to recruit unemployed people.

“It is full-time, year-round work with benefits,” paying from $10 to $15 an hour, Bender said. “When restaurants were shut down and retail was shut down, we thought people would be flocking to jobs,” he said.

Bender isn’t alone. Even with the unemployment rate in the Richmond area at 8.9% in July — more than the double the rate from July 2019 — some small-business owners say they are still struggling to hire people.

Michele Deane, owner of an Ace Handyman and a Bluefrog Plumbing franchise in the Richmond region, said she is looking to fill five spots to do home repair work, but she has had few takers with the qualifications she needs. Deane said she has advertised and posted signs around the Richmond region with her business phone number, looking for licensed repair professionals.

“I am hardly getting maybe two applications a week, and those people are not necessarily qualified,” Deane said. “In times past, I have gotten a couple a day.”

Deane said the home improvement market has been soft because some homeowners are nervous about having people come into their homes to work right now, but the demand for plumbing services remains strong.

“I think we are all struggling, because we are open and we have the desire to service our customers, but we don’t have the resources, which is why business is challenging right now,” she said.

A fear of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus seems to be playing a role in the reluctance of people to seek out jobs. That, combined with enhanced unemployment benefits of $600 per week that expired in late July, seems to have been a disincentive for many people to seek work.

“Some people who are at risk are probably not coming back into the labor market until they know they will be protected,” said Christine Chmura, CEO and chief economist at Chmura Economics & Analytics, a economics research firm in Richmond.

“There seems to be a large predominance of people who don’t want to work or can’t work right now,” Deane said. “I don’t understand why except for COVID. It is very possible that people out there are just scared. We take every precaution with our customers and our employees.”

Joe Adato, owner of Heaven Sent by Home Town Healthcare, a home-health provider based in Chester, said he also has been looking to hire professional home-health providers such as nurses and physical therapists, but he has struggled to find enough qualified people willing to take jobs.

“We literally turn down business every day because of staffing shortages,” said Adato, who employs about 75 people and has been looking for at least five more.

“We have lost some staff due to a fear of COVID,” he said. “We do not treat any patients that we know actively have COVID at this point. People became sensitive about taking COVID home to their children.”

Amine Chafi, owner of a CarRVA used-car dealership in Chesterfield County, said he has been trying to hire for a sales job for three months now. Business has been good, he said.

“We are looking to grow and expand, and we can’t do it without help,” he said. Yet Chafi said he has been able to find only a handful of applicants with the experience he needs for the sales job, and those candidates either have not responded to follow-up interview requests or eventually turned down the job.

“I’m back to the drawing board,” he said.

Corey Divine, owner of Candidate Source, a local company that helps clients in the warehouse, distribution and manufacturing industries find employees, said many of his clients are seeing good business demand.

“It means they need people,” he said. “But we are seeing turnover rates that are super high as well. It is not just difficult finding people. It also seems like people are less reliable than they were prior to the pandemic.”

“We have had to add some attendance bonuses for people to go to work,” he said. “We have seen clients ease background restrictions and even drug-testing requirements. We still have some clients who are seeing 75% turnover.”

Yet Divine said he has been seeing more applications recently from people who have not been employed since February or March. “That tells you they were on unemployment and now they are looking for work.”

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