Watch: Labor and economy experts discuss how the Texas economy has adapted during the pandemic

Year 3: COVID and the Economy

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Although the Texas economy has mostly recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, the state is still seeing a child care staffing crisis, forcing working parents to continue to stay home with their children, said Alfreda Norman, the senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, during a Friday panel moderated by Texas Tribune energy and economy reporter Mitchell Ferman.

“Women or caregivers, and that’s a lot of the time mostly women, were devastated really in terms of COVID affecting their employment,” Norman said. “And what we all should know at this moment in time is that the child care business model is a broken one. It’s not sustainable. It’s not allowing a living wage for the [child care] workers.”

Other challenges Texas faces going into the third year of the pandemic include getting workers vaccinated, supply chain issues and training workers for technology-based jobs, said Norman and fellow panelists Julian Alvarez, a Texas workforce commissioner representing labor, and Audrey Schroyer, the executive director of the Gainesville Economic Development Corp. But there are positives from the past two years as well, Norman said.

“People realize the importance of essential workers, the importance of workers to their businesses where maybe they perhaps took that for granted,” Norman said. “If there’s anything that has happened, it’s that the worker has perhaps a stronger voice in the sense of their importance to keeping the businesses going, through showing up and being there in these essential times.”

How the pandemic has affected working Texans 

Alvarez said the Texas Workforce Commission worked through three years’ worth of unemployment insurance claims in the past 13 months to ensure Texans who may have been unexpectedly laid off during the pandemic could receive unemployment aid. He said the commission, its partners and individual businesses have become creative during the pandemic to train workers for new and different jobs.

“Industry was driving what we at the Texas Workforce [Commission] were going to do next,” Alvarez said. “We allowed our workforce boards to be able to use some of their money to purchase hotspots or be able to purchase this technology or broadband service so that these kids in rural areas could actually have access to their computers.”

Nationally, COVID-19 has hit low-income individuals the hardest, Norman said, and it’s been a struggle to get workers vaccinated without vaccine mandates in place. Some people are even reluctant to tell their employers when they get sick because they risk losing at least five days of work due to quarantining, she said.

“Black and Hispanics have had a higher mortality as a result of COVID as well, so you can’t not want to say that everyone should be vaccinated and protect themselves,” Norman said. “At the same time, there’s economic factors in which people are trying to support their families and having to make really difficult decisions.”

Alvarez said the Workforce Commission encourages employers to follow COVID-19 recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which include getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

What businesses learned from the pandemic  

In Gainesville, Schroyer said, the largest employer manufactures airplane seats, so the city’s economy took a big hit when the pandemic caused air travel to plummet. But, she said, some businesses had record revenue once they were able to reopen because they diversified their operations and consumer base.

“They learned how to look beyond what they knew as their comfortable customer client base and … diversify how they could get into different product lines, maybe how they could cross-train employees if there were layoffs or [employees] decided to retire … so they could keep up with operations,” Schroyer said. “So that was another component of diversification, not just in what are we going to do in terms of our supply chain, but how are we going to keep up with our people as well.”

Norman said this pivot is happening across industries nationally as employers realize workers are not necessarily trained for more technologically advanced jobs.

“Getting workers cross-trained and getting workers prepared for the future economy is essential,” Norman said. “One of the things we realized is that pretty much as a country, we’ve not done a good job of preparing people for those 21st century jobs.”

Economic growth during the pandemic

Schroyer said Gainesville, a North Texas city of about 16,000 residents, has seen an influx of young individuals and families moving to more rural communities, which she attributes to a lower cost of living compared with urban and suburban areas.

“We can offer land, buildings, incentives, workforce, quality of life, and it’s usually a lower cost upfront to the business moving here than if they were to move into an urban area,” Schroyer said.

Both Alvarez and Norman agreed that they have seen collaboration among employers, workers, government and community leaders to help hire, train and retain workers across the state.

“It’s amazing to see what can happen when everybody has a shared vision on what they see for their community and can start to make systemic change by providing adaptive leadership, which is what you need for complex problems, and it’s great to see that happening in the state,” Norman said.

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Sponsors help make our events possible. Thank you to UTHealth School of Public Health for presenting this event and HCA Healthcare, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. and the Texas Association of Community Colleges for supporting this event. Media support is provided by Austin American-Statesman.

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