JOB HUNT: Staff members at Penmac Staffing Services help job seekers at its Springfield office.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
JOB HUNT: Staff members at Penmac Staffing Services help job seekers at its Springfield office.

As unemployment smashes records, agencies say jobs are available

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There are fewer people filling the lobby at Penmac Staffing Services Inc.’s Springfield office in recent weeks. But that’s not because people aren’t seeking work.

The coronavirus is limiting the number of people who can be inside the building of the Springfield-based professional staffing company, but officials say interest from job seekers is apparent.

The virus also is fueling a skyrocketing number of jobless claims, as a record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the week ending March 21, according to a Labor Department report issued March 26.

“The flow of people looking for jobs, whether they are workers that have been displaced, or retail even, it has been very strong,” Penmac CEO Tim Massey said. “We had to work really hard to keep our lobby numbers at five for the number of people wanting to come in and apply.”

Massey said jobs are available, especially in the manufacturing, health care and auto industries. According to the company website, local in-demand positions include manufacturing technicians, concrete workers and trailer mechanics. Penmac also is offering immediate temporary employment and $50 bonuses to workers laid off due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of job hunters also has jumped at the Missouri Job Center, said spokeswoman Katherine Trombetta. Although its offices in Springfield and Branson temporarily closed down March 20 in response to the coronavirus, she said the staff continues to work to assist the public by phone or email. Prior to closing, the south-side office on Sunshine Street had assisted 145 people with job searches March 16-19. That’s up from 130 helped over five days the week prior.

“Since we can’t serve them face to face right now, we are referring them to the website to do job searching,” Trombetta said of Jobs.Mo.gov, the primary database for job seekers.

By March 20, Job Center staff members were using social media to get the word out about job postings – an avenue Trombetta said gained attention. A recent Facebook post she made about a few local companies hiring – including Harter House, Price Cutter, CoxHealth, Mercy and Community Blood Center of the Ozarks – had 336 shares and a reach of more than 18,000 in a matter of days.

Unemployment rising
Local job availability is coming at a time when it’s desperately needed. Labor Department unemployment claim totals are starting to reflect the heavy impact of COVID-19 on the national job market, specifically the accommodation and food services industries.

The Labor Department said in its March 26 report that the recent weekly record of 3.28 million unemployment claims shattered the previous high of 695,000, set in October 1982. For the week ending March 14, the unemployment claims total was 281,000. In Missouri, initial claims filed were 40,508, up from 4,016 the week prior.

The hospitality industry is a key contributor to those numbers. Locally, hotel owners Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC and Earl Steinert of EAS Investment Enterprises Inc. each announced temporary layoffs. Steinert estimated he let go half of his roughly 160-employee workforce among the three Hampton Inn & Suites and a Home2Suites by Hilton Springfield North.

Darren Harralson, senior director of operations for O’Reilly Hospitality, was among Missouri hoteliers who sent letters to Congress seeking assistance for the hotel industry, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. In an excerpt of the letter, Harralson noted the company is scrambling to find ways to keep afloat and has had to move to temporary leave for around 40% of its workforce.

“We need help quickly for both our company and our approximate 1,800 team members,” he said in the letter.

Harralson declined an interview request seeking additional comment.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association noted in a news release that 44% of hotel employees nationwide are projected to have lost or will lose their jobs in coming weeks, according to economic forecasting firm Oxford Economics.

In Missouri, there are 39,138 direct hotel operations jobs and 123,610 total support jobs, according to the Oxford Economics data. Coronavirus-induced job losses in statewide is estimated at 17,221 in direct hotel work and 50,447 support workers.

Restaurants and hotels are both among those named as essential businesses in the stay-at-home order announced March 24 by Springfield and Greene County officials. The order went into effect March 26 and is set to expire in 30 days. Other essential businesses include health care, transportation, sanitation, auto repair and financial services.

Opportunity knocks
Anne Williams, president of Columbia-based JobFinders, said as the coronavirus spread this month, she was concerned the temp agency might struggle to offer anything to those on the hunt.

“We were more afraid that we wouldn’t have any business, to tell the truth,” she said, adding she’s never seen anything hit this quick and hard in her 34 years in the industry. “You just don’t know.”

Williams said the company’s seven branches, including one in Springfield, are closed to the public. However, manufacturing and warehousing jobs are among those now available through its website.

“If they want to work, there are jobs out there,” she said.

The Springfield office at Penmac is still open, Massey said, but only by appointment. He said the office typically sees 275-350 new applicants on a weekly basis.

It’s a bit too soon to say how much those numbers will move in coming weeks, said Jeremy Russell, branch manager. But he said the company’s recently increased efforts to promote available jobs via its website and social media seems to be making an impact.

For most of the week of March 16, there were roughly 25-35 job seekers coming daily to the office, he said. On March 20 and 23, the number jumped to over 50 per day.

Massey said the company works with more than 600 companies over the course of a year.

“How we measure our weekly numbers is on the number of hours billed. At the most so far – and that could change – we’ve only seen maybe a 5% drop in those hours,” he said of activity in March. “That’s because we have a lot of job opportunities open.”

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