Employers still struggling to find workers

AP file photo/Jennifer Porter of Hyannis cleans windows at Red Jacket Resorts in Yarmouth. It's not just hotels, restaurants and other businesses in tourist destinations that are hurting for employees, it's affecting employers big and small in all sections of the state.

BOSTON — A post-pandemic hiring crunch is worsening, according to a new report that finds nearly half of all employers are struggling to fill vacancies.

The latest survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses found that nearly half of all businesses could not hire enough staff in August, while more than 22% of available positions went unfilled.

Ninety-one percent of business owners hiring or trying to hire reported few or no qualified applicants — a 48-year high, the group said.

Business leaders in Massachusetts say the data shows a deepening hiring crunch that is dragging on the economy.

"The numbers keep getting worse for small-business owners," said Christopher Carlozzi, the federation’s Massachusetts state director. "Particularly hard hit are restaurants, retailers and the hospitality industry — businesses that are still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Carlozzi said the state's economy is "extremely fragile and the sooner businesses are fully staffed by filling open positions, the faster the state will fully recover."

"If restaurants can’t find enough servers to wait on patrons and stores don’t have enough registers open, longer waits will result in consumers having a negative shopping or dining experience," he said.

Business owners have suggested that generous state and federal unemployment benefits, a lack of incentives to return to the workplace, and lingering fears about COVID-19 may be keeping many would-be workers on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, a surge in COVID-19 infections, chronic worker shortages and supply chain disruptions combined to dampen business confidence in Massachusetts last month, according to a survey by the pro-business Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

The group's Business Confidence Index, which draws upon surveys of about 140 businesses, declined 3.6 points to 62.0 in August after hitting a three-year high in July.

Employers were less optimistic last month about everything from their own companies to the state and national economies, the survey found.

Confidence in factories declined for the first time this year as companies faced the twin challenges of surging prices and shortages of raw materials, according to the business group.

"Everyone from manufacturers to retailers is struggling to provide product amid renewed pandemic-containment measures and critical shortages of labor and materials," Sara L. Johnson, chair of the group’s board of economic advisers, said in a statement.

Several federal unemployment programs, including a $300-per-week payment, expired last week. Hundreds of thousands of workers are now without benefits.

State labor leaders are trying to connect many of those workers with open jobs and retraining programs that can help them reenter the workforce.

Despite the labor crunch, Edward Pendergast, managing director of Dunn Rush & Co. and an economic board member for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the state's economy remains strong.

He noted that employers created 43,000 jobs in July.

"The August confidence numbers reflect the fact that employers are balancing a multitude of uncertainties, ranging from decisions about whether or not to require employees to be vaccinated to finding qualified workers," he said. "The central uncertainty, of course, remains the future course of the pandemic itself."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. cwade@northofboston.com.

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