How the pandemic continues to shape our workforce


Across the Santa Clarita Valley, “now hiring” signs can be seen hanging from businesses, many depicting sign-on bonuses and higher than average starting wages.

It’s evidence of what’s been dubbed a nationwide “worker shortage,” as employers struggle to hire back many of the 22 million people laid off at the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic led to a mass exodus of workers from the labor force, many of whom have yet to return.

While there are still more than 8 million people jobless nationwide, 1.1 million in California, job openings are currently at an all-time high and layoffs by firms are now at 20+-year lows, according to the September 2021 SCV Economic Outlook report.

And the labor shortage is only getting worse, according to an Alignable survey that found 66% of small business owners reported having a “very difficult” time finding the right employees to fill open roles, up 7% since August.

The sectors that suffered the most when it came to pandemic restrictions are reportedly in the worse shape, with restaurants at the top of the list with 85% reporting difficulties finding help, per the survey.

SCV business owners continue to struggle

Locally, SCV businesses in a variety of sectors are feeling the effects of the labor shortage, including The Great American Barbershop, whose manager Shannon Amary says is understaffed.

For Amary, one of the biggest challenges has been contending with unemployment benefits, which she said has resulted in people wanted extreme amounts of money to come back to work.

The shop has been faced with a challenging year, closing and reopening multiple times due to pandemic restrictions, with employees changing almost as frequently.

“We’re looking to find help, then when we do find help, it’s not enough for them,” Amary added.

Additionally, many of the larger companies are offering hiring bonuses and benefits, making it much harder for a small independent to compete, Amary said.

“They have a lot more to offer, but even they are having problems finding people,” Amary added.

When unemployment benefits ended earlier this month, Amary hoped to see more applications, but the shop has not had such luck yet.

“Thankfully, the staff I do have is super close and dedicated to keeping the business open,” Amary added. “We’re trying to do best we can to keep customers happy … but it’s hard. People are starting to get burned out.”

With wait times already longer at the shop, Amary said the shop may also need to cut down its open hours.

“Everyone is in the same boat — it’s everywhere I talk to,” Amary said of the hiring challenges. “I hope it gets better for everybody.”

Cherie McGraham, owner of Smokehouse on Main, has been left with no choice but to fill the gaps in employment herself, working long hours and filling whatever role necessary, including as a cook.

“I work from 10 in the morning, until 11 (or) 11:30 at night, nonstop, and I am exhausted,” McGraham said. “I mean, I’ve always worked. … I love being there with the people, and I swear I get the support that I do (from customers) because they see me in the trenches.”

Her staff is overwhelmed, overworked and tired — and so is she — but she said she isn’t giving up, adding, “Whatever it takes, I’m not going anywhere if I can help it.”

Similar to The Great American Barbershop, McGraham is feeling the effects of the sign-on bonuses, which are also poaching her employees.

“It’s awful, and the worst part is the few that I was able to get left to go to school so I’m down even further again,” McGraham added.

BevMo! in The Plaza at Golden Valley. Dan Watson/the Signal

Just last week, The Backyard Grub n’ Brews had to close over the weekend due to a kitchen staff shortage, putting out a call on social media for immediate openings for every position.

After 16 months of halted operations for cruise ships, Santa Clarita-based Princess Cruises was finally able to resume operations in July, and the company has since been hiring to fill hundreds of open positions.

“By and large, we are progressing well with our recruitment efforts, (as) there is still much excitement in the cruise industry about the return to service,” said Brian O’Connor, the cruise line’s vice president of communications.

However, like many other industries, Princess has found it challenging to recruit in certain skilled areas, particularly in the IT, digital marketing and finance departments, according to O’Connor.

Local unemployment rates projected to stabilize

“It’s unfortunate to see the large number of unfilled jobs throughout not just the Santa Clarita Valley, but the entire country,” said Ivan Volschenk, president and CEO of the SCV Chamber of Commerce. “There are numerous factors that have resulted in workers staying out of the job market: too-generous government benefits, lack of child care, fear of the virus, just to name a few.”

The chamber has been monitoring its businesses, many of which have unfilled positions, and continues to advise them — and their customers — to follow public health guidelines to ensure they can remain open and operate safely.

“We continue to advocate with local, county, state and federal agencies to institute reasonable unchanging guidance to ensure businesses can focus on their recovery as opposed to implemented and following the constant changes,” Volschenk added. “Thankfully, our businesses have plenty of resources to hire locally including Live Work SCV. Employers should utilize our local opportunities and find quality employees for their businesses.”

In Los Angeles County, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased over the month to 10.1% in August from 10.4% in July, which is below the rate of 17.2% a year ago, according to the latest report from the state Employment Development Department.

However, the unemployment rate represents people who want to work but are not, which does not accurately represent the true extent of things, as those who do not want to work aren’t counted as unemployed.

While there are a number of factors keeping workers from returning, the SCV Economic Outlook report predicts a surge in employment growth as the COVID-19 cases decrease and consequently quelling fears, unemployment benefits cease and schools reopen, allowing more flexibility for parents in need of child care.

“Those three issues have been the obstacles, and as those issues are resolved, we’re hoping that that means more people can come back to the workforce,” said Holly Schroeder, president and CEO of the SCV Economic Development Corp.

“All jobs lost during the pandemic will be recovered by the second half of 2022,” the outlook report predicts, “and the labor market will return to full employment.”

However, employers will still have difficulty filling jobs because of the seismic shift of retiring baby boomers and the desire of many workers to change careers post-pandemic, the report continued.

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