From restaurants to schools, finding workers — at wages employers can pay — is a challenge
Bar Francis owner Craig Batchelor was excited to see familiar faces fill the venue after opening in late June for the first time in more than a year. The Sperryville bar closed in the spring of 2020 because of pandemic restrictions. While the bar has seen their regular flow of clientele return, one challenge still persists — finding additional employees.
“Our business has not only gotten back to where it was pre-pandemic, it has expanded,” Batchelor said. “We’re busy, there’s a demand. And we’re struggling to keep up with it.”
Finding part-time and full-time workers has been a problem for Rappahannock County businesses since before the COVID-19 pandemic sent many workers home for an undetermined amount of time. As people slowly start to move into a post-pandemic mindset, Rappahannock County is faced with the same challenges of trying to fill open positions.
Bar Francis was closed for 464 days, and upon its reopening in late June, Batchelor said they were able to bring back every single employee who was laid off during the bar’s closure. But, he added, with most people vaccinated and anxious to finally be going out again, the new rush has put a strain on the staff.
“When you ask me what the next two or three months is going to bring, I am cautiously optimistic, but I really don’t know, and that is part of the greater hiring issue,” Batchelor said. “I’d like to think that we are over the hump with COVID. But there are still some scary dangers involved.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 304 people in Rappahannock County were unemployed in April 2020 — the highest unemployment in the last several years. As of February 2021, there are still 140 unemployed people in the county, despite the growing number of local businesses seeking employees.
One former winery employee the Rappahannock News spoke with mentioned low wages were deterring her from applying for a part-time job. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a single adult with no children working full time in Rappahannock County would need to make at least $16.18 per hour to support his or herself. The state increased its hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 on May 1, and it will increase again to $11 on Jan. 1, 2022. By Jan. 1, 2023, the hourly minimum wage will be $12.
Businesses in Rappahannock County have to compete with the wages offered in neighboring counties. According to a December 2020 report from the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC), Rappahannock County has the lowest median household income compared to other counties in the region at $47,975. The highest median household income is in Fauquier County, where earners make closer to $76,873 per year. The median household income in Culpeper County is $66,034, the median income in Madison County is $48,729 and in Orange County it is $49,681.
Theresa Wood, president of Businesses of Rappahannock, said businesses in the county are prevented from raising their wages because of the slim margins many shops and restaurants see on a weekly basis. She said there have been efforts to increase tourism to the area to drive the local economy, but this makes it difficult for businesses to promise employees higher wages and consistent hours.
“It’s the same old conversation, sorry to say, but … we’re not attracting enough young people to the area, you know, the ones that live and work in Rappahannock,” Wood said. “And I don’t think you’re going to see too many people just driving for a restaurant job from another county.”
Another 2020 study from the RRRC found the percentage of employees living within Rappahannock County has decreased 9.5 percent since 2002, and the number of residents working within the county has dropped 9.1 percent. Of the five counties surveyed by the commission, Rappahannock has the highest percentage of its population in the 45-64 and 65 and up age ranges, signaling a large population of retired people in the county.
Carol Johnson, assistant superintendent of the Rappahannock County Public Schools, said that since the pandemic, the district has adjusted wages and added bonuses to several positions in order to stay competitive with school districts in neighboring counties. Earlier this year, RCPS increased wages for substitute teachers from a graduated scale to $85 a day and also increased pay for first-year teachers.
Before the School Board authorized a change to the pay scale this spring, Rappahannock County had the lowest starting salary for new teachers in the region.In Fauquier, the starting salary for teachers is $44,800 and in Culpeper County, that salary is $44,105. Rappahannock’s school division increased the salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Rappahannock County from $41,353 to $45,000 to compete with neighboring divisions.
RCPS also added “hard to hire” bonuses for positions that have been difficult to fill, such as early childhood special education and an English language teacher. The district also provides tuition assistance to current faculty to earn multiple endorsements so the district can build internal capacity to staff hard-to-hire positions.
“Rappahannock is very rural. And so, on a good year, we’re going to have several positions open that we are going to be trying to fill,” Johnson said. “This year, we did get hit harder. We had more retirees this year, and I do attribute that to the pandemic.”