CHARLES TOWN – Darrell Jones, the hands-on sole proprietor of SVG Commercial Cleaning in Charles Town, has been turning away clients because he doesn’t have enough employees to do the work.

Jones has tried recruiting new employees using social media, online job posting sites and word of mouth. “We have to look everywhere we can to find prime candidates,” he said. “This has been the most difficult time over the last six to eight months, but especially recently.

“I’ve had to be a lot more aggressive within the last 90 days.”

About one-third of the people who have been applying for SVG Commercial’s jobs online don’t even complete the company’s initial application form, Jones said. Half of the people he extends a job interview to don’t respond. Others accept but never show up.

“I’ve been losing whole days trying to interview people who are then not showing up,” he said.

Help wanted signs are posted all over in Jefferson County’s businesses. From entry-level service industry jobs to career-driven office positions, many jobs have been difficult to fill, according to business owners and executives. Many businesses like SVG Commercial are turning away clients and growth opportunities because the labor pool has dried up since the pandemic.

The worker shortage prompted the City of Charles Town’s downtown business coordinator Liz Cook to organize a job fair on Monday at Charles Washington Hall. At least a dozen downtown businesses are looking for willing employees. The city itself hopes to hire municipal maintenance workers.

After laying off more than 540 workers in July, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, a bellwether for Jefferson County’s economy, is now offering $1,500 hiring bonuses to help fill about 60 hospitality jobs ranging from cooks and cashiers to bartenders and bus drivers. Most of the jobs available pay $10 to $14 per hour. However, some office positions available include a director of finance and a marketing representative position.  

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses have been among the hardest hit with pandemic shutdowns and capacity restrictions. Some have managed the crisis by shifting to provide takeout orders. With mass vaccinations rapidly opening up the economy and workforce, the food-service industry has had difficulty filling positions again.

Nationwide, the Applebee’s restaurant franchise chain has more than 10,200 jobs to fill at 1,424 locations.

The Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday restaurants in Charles Town have cut back their serving hours because of fewer workers. Some managers at the separate franchise outlets were filling in frontline server roles. One manager donned an apron to work as a line cook during a recent lunch shift.

Along with a handmade sign in its front window announcing that the restaurant’s dining room is open to customers, Ruby Tuesday posted a yard sign announcing a $200 hiring bonus for new employees.

WIDESPREAD CHALLENGES

As the economy attempts to surge back from the pandemic, the hiring challenge has placed an increasing drag on individual businesses and the overall economy.

The nationwide worker shortage has affected a diverse range of businesses during the pandemic, not just those in the service and hospitality sectors.

Alice Frazier, president and CEO of the Bank of Charles Town, said many of the bank’s business clients are challenged to find the right employees. But she said many businesses had that problem even before the pandemic.

“They all had backlogs of opportunities for additional business but didn’t have enough talent,” Frazier explained. “Now it’s even worse. They have the opportunity to get back to the revenue levels that they had before [the pandemic], but being able to add to their teams to accomplish that has been difficult.”

Frazier said various industries are facing serious problems obtaining essential materials, key parts or important merchandise due to worker shortages disrupting production and supply chains across the country. Some factories or suppliers are held up from delayed orders from their own suppliers struggle with the labor shortage, she said.

The problem has rippled through the economy nationwide, Frazier said. Some BCT restaurant clients are having to reinvent their menus because they can’t acquire the groceries or food they typically rely on. One local hotel under construction has been held up from opening while waiting on an order of 400 toilet seats. Around the country, car manufacturing plants have shut down their production lines waiting for essential computer chips used in vehicles.

The rising costs of construction materials have caused some home builders to delay setting final home sale prices until most materials have been purchased before the construction process starts, Frazier said. Plastic plumbing pipes used in home construction alone have become about four times more costly during the pandemic, she said.

Meanwhile, Frazier said, the effective wage many people are earning from unemployment pay boosted by the federal government during the pandemic is significantly higher than what many workers earned before the outbreak. That welfare pay has kept many workers on the sidelines of the job market looking for $14 to $17 an hour wages that many employers can’t afford to pay, she said.

“Additional monies on top of standard unemployment have been applied for so long people are used to living a certain way,” she said.  

While Jefferson County has a generally stable and solid economy, Frazier said, the current labor dynamics has her concerned about inflation taking hold for everyday purchases for consumers. “It is hard when some of these prices increase for them to go backward,” she said. “I’m concerned that it’s creating a higher level of expense for everyone.”

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice announced the state will stop enhanced pandemic unemployment pay at midnight June 19. The governor said the change is designed to help struggling small businesses fill open jobs. “West Virginians have access to thousands of jobs right now, and we need everybody back to work,” he said. “Our small businesses and economy depend on it so much.”

SEEKING SPECIALIZED SKILLS

Meanwhile, BCT is participating in Charles Town’s job fair next week in part because the community is always looking to hire people who are a good fit for the jobs available. “We’re always looking for great folks,” Frazier said.

BCT is continually promoting employees to new positions, Frazier said. The bank frequently has full-time and part-time teller positions to fill. Currently, the community bank has a job processing home loans and another position assisting with loan servicing.

“We’ve had a lot of growth in both of those areas,” Frazier said. “So we’re looking to add to our team.”

“It’s taken a while, definitely, to find the right people,” she added, noting that BCT recently doubled the bonuses the bank gives current employees who make successful hiring referrals.  

Down the street, Lori Castillo, owner of Effleurage Spa in Charles Town, is also participating in the job fair. She said she’s looking to hire at least two massage therapists and one aesthetician skin care specialist to help her growing business. Her spa expanded in March when it moved to a larger space on West Washington Street.

Castillo had started looking for extra help in February after having to lay off two workers last year during the pandemic. Now her business has been roaring back.

“Because we have more treatment rooms available we are able to accommodate a larger clientele,” she said. “So our client base is growing and we are attracting people from out of town, especially on the weekends.”

But Effleurage Spa has been turning away clients without having more licensed therapists, Castillo said. With more people spending pressurized time cooped up with work and Zoom meetings on computers at home, there’s a bigger demand for help working out the stress building up in necks, backs and bodies, she said.

“People are doing a lot more self-care than they were previously,” she said. “We’re turning business away because our therapists’ books are already full.”

But hiring the specialized help she needs hasn’t been easy or quick, Castillo said. She can’t hire just anyone off the street and train them herself. Massage therapists must undergo hundreds of hours of training to become licensed by the state.

 Castillo has reached out to the massage therapy school at James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg to generate job interest in the program’s students. She’s also hoping therapists who were sidelined during the pandemic would be willing to come back to the industry.

Massage therapists make a living supplemented by tips from building a book of repeat clientele. Therapists typically work about 20 hours a week, Castillo said.  

“It’s such a unique industry,” she said. “It takes quite a while to build your books in order to live completely off of your income doing massage therapy.”

OFFICE WORKERS WANTED

During what is hopefully now the sunset of the pandemic’s economic disruption, many jobs are available in Jefferson County outside the high-turnover service industries too, business owners and executives report.

At Dandridge Realty, also in downtown Charles Town, owner Liz McDonald has been busy hiring and helping to license a group of new real estate agents to keep up with the booming demand to connect home sellers and buyers. She’s also been hiring administrative support staff to assist the growing team of agents.

“We’re growing pretty quickly,” she offered.  

Staying busy right through the pandemic, Dandridge Realty serves a lot of homebuyers from Northern Virginia, many of whom are looking for getaway homes in Jefferson County, McDonald said. “We’ve got a lot of buyers coming in this direction and we need people to really help them adapt to the area, understand the neighborhood and figure out where they’re comfortable and happy,” she said.

With other offices in Frederick, Maryland, and Leesburg, Virginia, Dandridge Realty operates with 12 agents now. McDonald said her 11-year-old firm is on track to at least double but possibly triple its home sales volume this year. And she needs professional and energetic sales agents to reach her growth target.

“We’re definitely always hiring,” she said.

To grow her firm’s network of agents, McDonald is helping five people to obtain their real estate licenses in June. She plans to help launch another crop of newly licensed agents to double her sales team by the fall.

Dandridge Realty will be participating in Charles Town’s job fair. She’s primarily looking for professional employees who work well with others and happily serve customers. People serving in administrative positions need to handle details well. In addition to real estate transaction knowledge, agents need to be problem solvers.

“There’s always a competition for good people,” she said.

SEEKING THE BASICS

Back at SVG Commercial Cleaning, the pandemic has been challenging, but Jones said his company was able to take new deep cleaning work for government offices, schools, medical offices. “We had all of the high-end gear with respirators to take on all of this work,” he said. “We kept going.”

Typically, SVG Commercial has employed about 15 cleaners, but the business has experienced higher turnover than normal during the pandemic, Jones said. Worried about their health, some employees were reluctant to work in other people’s homes during the outbreak. But luring people back into jobs even after vaccinations have become widely available has been an unusually difficult challenge, he said.

Jones said he first raised the wages for his veteran employees before recently pushing up the starting hourly wages of his newest hires to about $14 to $16. The higher pay has begun to draw more applicants who have been serious about the jobs they were applying for, he said.

“It’s still just not enough,” he said.

Raising service rates is something he sees likely necessary in the future, but he’s been able to put off that delicate decision so far, Jones said.

Jones said he’s looking to hire people with basic professional attributes—people willing to be trustworthy, show up on time and perform the work as diligently as if it were for yourself. He can be flexible in hiring people for either part-time or full-time work, depending on their circumstances and the type of cleaning work available. His employees can’t have any criminal history because of the clients his company serves.

But mostly SVG Commercial’s employees need to be detail- and process-oriented to do a thorough cleaning that shines. “There is a type of person who is just like me who enjoys the process of cleaning,” said Jones, who still enjoys spiffing up job sites alongside his employees. “I started the business because I love cleaning. It’s like meditation for me.”

A cleaning job has its benefits over other jobs that may not be apparent, too. Unlike others in some frontline retail jobs, cleaners typically have plenty of time to work independently, without a customer or supervisor looking over your shoulder. Dust bunnies don’t complain. Smudged windows aren’t unreasonably demanding. Listening to music, a book on tape or podcasts while you work is just fine by Jones and makes the shift fly by fast.

“I just need those people who don’t mind the physical labor and breaking a sweat,” he said.

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