Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said back in March that the state is open for business again after the pandemic, though it might not be the case much longer for some businesses if they can’t find enough employees to keep operating.

Esmeralda Villarreal, president and CEO of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, said a severe worker shortage is affecting Brownsville businesses across the board, from mom-and-pop restaurants to large industrial plants. It’s not an exaggeration to say the situation is devastating in some cases, she said.

With many small businesses, the whole family is having to pitch in to keep things running without enough workers on hand, Villarreal said, while the owners themselves are often too busy to even respond to chamber surveys asking them how they’re doing in terms of hiring.

“They’re washing dishes, they’re serving, they’re cooking, they’re making drinks,” she said. “And it’s not just restaurants.”

Even hotel general managers are staffing the front desk, cleaning rooms and performing other tasks formerly not part of the job description, while some businesses with multiple locations around the Rio Grande Valley are having to shuffle workers between South Padre Island and the McAllen metro area just to keep them all open, Villarreal said.

“Yes, we’re open for business and, yes, our businesses are slowly getting better, but the message is clear: They will not be able to remain open if they don’t have the personnel,” she said.

Villarreal, who sits on the 20-member board of the statewide Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives, said chamber heads across the state are dealing with the same issue and struggling to come up with solutions. The worker shortage was also a hot topic during the regular legislative session that ended May 31, she noted.

A now hiring sign is featured on El Globo Supermarket outdoor sign Wednesday. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“We know it’s everywhere,” Villarreal said. “It’s not Brownsville. It’s not South Texas. It’s not just Texas.”

The hope was that curtailing additional federal unemployment benefits, which Abbott did on June 26, would encourage state residents to return to the job market, though it doesn’t appear to be having much of an effect yet, she said.

On a positive note, an all-day career expo on June 28 attracted more than 1,800 job seekers from Brownsville, the Valley, Texas and even out of state interested in positions being offered by major local employers, Villarreal noted.

“The job fair was a success,” she said. “But we’re still lacking personnel. We just can’t find enough people at this moment that are willing to go back into the workforce.”

Edgar Ghossoub, a professor of economics at the University of Texas San-Antonio, said one result of the pandemic and ensuing worker shortage is that wages are rising as employers try to get people back to work. The employer-employee dynamic has changed, with job hunters enjoying more bargaining power when it comes to salaries or wages and also working conditions, while emergency unemployment benefits and extensions to those benefits have given people options.

“That definitely would give some incentive not to go to the job market,” Ghossoub said, noting that in some cases child daycare might not be available or affordable for those who do want to go back to work.

“But we see wages rising presently as an incentive to these workers to lure them back in,” he said.

Ghossoub said the loss of additional unemployment benefits should motivate more Texans to return to the job market, though if the current situation persists it’s likely to dampen the economic recovery currently underway. Still, he said he thinks higher wages and other incentives employers are offering, such as sign-up bonuses, will eventually do the trick.

“We are in a very unusual situation,” Ghossoub said. “It’s not like you get a pandemic every year. There are a lot of unknowns.”

When and if the worker gap closes it will allow companies to increase their productivity, while higher wages will help correct the imbalance between the earnings of low-paid workers and inflation, he said.

Patrons visit IQ’s Juice Bar Smoothies and More, which is seeking to hire new employees at their location at North Park Plaza in Brownsville.

Villarreal said the chamber meanwhile is doing everything it can to help Brownsville employers get the word out that they’re hiring in a big way. With so many jobs open, rising wages and incentives on the table like never before, it’s a great time to be job hunting, she said.

“If you say you can’t find a job, we will help you find a job,” Villarreal said. “Everyone is hiring.”

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