Employers are creating jobs. Filling them is the challenge as the labor shortage drags on. – Daytona Beach News-Journal

January is traditionally one of the busiest hiring months, but that doesn’t appear to be the case this year as the labor shortage that began in 2021 continues, according to employers in Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties.
“So far, this January, I’ve only had one application, one,” said Mark Langello, owner of M&M Development & Construction in Bunnell. “I could hire at least six or seven people if I had the available workers with the demand for services I have right now.”
Local employers in Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties say the labor shortage appears to be showing no signs of ending anytime soon.
“We’re still seeing a severe labor shortage,” said Manoj Bhoola, the president and CEO of Elite Hospitality in Ormond Beach. Elite owns four hotels in the Daytona Beach area as well as four in the St. Augustine area and four in the Jacksonville area.
“We’ve had at least 50 job openings for the past six months and we have yet to see an increase in job applicants. And of those who do apply, some don’t even show up for the interview,” said Bhoola. “In the 40 years our family’s been in the hotel business, we’ve never seen it this bad.”
Elite’s hotels in Volusia County include the Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn at Daytona Beach International Airport, the Best Western International Speedway near Interstate 95 in Daytona Beach and the oceanfront Best Western in Ormond Beach.
In St. Johns County, Elite’s hotels are all in St. Augustine Beach: the Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn and the Castillo Real. 
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In November, the number of people employed rose by 537 in Volusia County, by 247 in St. Johns County, and by 151 in Flagler County, compared with October, according to the most recent workforce statistics provided by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Those modest gains were still enough to push jobless rates lower in all three counties. St. Johns County’s unemployment rate in November improved to 2.6%, the second lowest in the state, down from 2.9% in October. Volusia County’s unemployment rate improved to 3.9%, down from 4.2% in October, while Flagler County saw its rate drop to 4.1%, down from 4.4% in October.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates soared to new all-time highs in all three counties as employers laid off or temporarily furloughed tens of thousands of workers amid a state-mandated lockdown of broad swaths of the economy.
Unemployment peaked in April 2020 at 15.3% in Flagler County, 15.1% in Volusia County, and 11.4% in St. Johns County.
In February 2020, the last full month before the pandemic-induced lockdowns began, jobless rates stood at 3.9% in Flagler County, 3.6% in Volusia County and 2.7% in St. Johns County.
But the jobless rates can be somewhat misleading. The state only counts workers who are actively seeking employment as unemployed. Not counted are those who simply choose to drop out of the workforce, whether it’s because they are waiting for better opportunities or have decided to retire.
Some may be holding off on returning to work because of concerns about the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the recent surge in cases caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, according to employment market experts.
“COVID is still the x-factor,” said Christine Sikora, vice president of innovative solutions for CareerSource Flagler Volusia, the regional workforce development agency for Volusia and Flagler counties. “Nobody can predict what will happen (with the coronavirus).”
Some small business owners have blamed the labor shortage on people who are content to collect unemployment benefits rather than go back to work. Sikora said that might have been true for some workers during the early months of the pandemic, but said she doubts that is still the case today.
In Florida, displaced workers in 2021 were only allowed to receive unemployment benefits for a total of 19 weeks. Those receiving them at the start of that year would have exhausted those benefits by mid-May.
This year, the maximum number of weeks displaced workers can receive unemployment benefits in Florida has been reduced to 12 weeks. And those who used up their unemployment benefits in 2021 and never returned to work are not eligible to receive benefits in 2022 even though it’s a new year, according to Sikora.
What’s more, the maximum amount of unemployment pay workers can receive each week from the state in Florida is $275. “You can’t live off of that,” said Sikora.
When the national Waffle House restaurant chain abruptly closed more than 400 locations in early 2020 because of the pandemic, it was seen by some as an indicator of how tough times were becoming. Some economists even use the “Waffle House Index” as an economic indicator.
This past Monday, the Waffle House restaurant at 1633 Taylor Road in Port Orange, one of the locations that the chain shuttered in 2020, quietly reopened its doors.
A hand-drawn sign stating “Now Hiring” has been erected in front of the restaurant while a sign inside the front entrance lists the various benefits it is offering new hires. Those benefits include flexible work hours, stock options, paid training, health insurance, maternity leave, vacation pay and opportunities for career advancement including a three-month management training program.
A spokesperson for the Norcross, Georgia-based restaurant chain did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chris Koontz, the owner of Koontz Heating & Air-Conditioning in Ormond Beach, said he has never seen a labor shortage this bad in all the years he has been in business.
“I’ve even increased our starting pay to $16 an hour for workers with no experience,” said Koontz, who used to start untrained workers at $12 an hour prior to the pandemic.
“It’s made some difference, but I still have several positions that remain unfilled, and with inflation rising like it’s been, we’re going to have to make another adjustment (by increasing worker pay yet again),” Koontz said.
Bhoola said he has had to keep some rooms at his hotels closed because he doesn’t have enough workers to maintain them on a regular basis. “Our general managers are actually now filling on on the front desks, which we never had to do before,” he said.
“We’ve raised wages and benefits, but I don’t see any end in sight to the labor shortage,” he said.
But salary isn’t the only driving force, according to Scott Maynard, director of economic development for the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce.
Maynard said workers are also looking for life/work balance and upward mobility in their career options, with opportunities for advancement, training and development. 
In Flagler County, Langello said he recently started working with the local probation office to try to fill day labor jobs for his construction company.
“It’s actually worked pretty well,” he said. 

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