On Saturday, Greg Sarfin was back behind the bar serving drinks in a local watering hole after a roller-coaster ride of unemployment that has trailed spring and summertime waves of local COVID-19 cases and shutdowns.
Sarfin had worked at a Northside bar for 17 years when he was laid off in late March, but he soon found another bartending job, at My Bar San Antonio, and began working there until Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars to close again in June.
While Sarfin was receiving state unemployment benefits, “it wasn’t a whole lot,” he said, especially after the federal benefit of an extra $600 per week expired at the end of July.
The single father hasn’t paid rent on the home he is leasing from his father in over three months. “If I was in an apartment or had a traditional mortgage, I’d probably be homeless or on the verge of it now,” Sarfin said.
Over the weekend, Sarfin started working again with his first shift back at My Bar, a job he loves.
Since the start of the pandemic in March, over 300,000 people in a 13-county region that includes Bexar County have filed for unemployment benefits. More than 80 percent of those were in Bexar. During one week in March, over 21,000 people in the county filed claims.
The numbers of weekly unemployment claims in the county have bounced up and down, edging up during August and into the first weeks of September. The latest figures from the Texas Workforce Commission show another downward trend.
The unemployment rate in Bexar County during August was 6.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), down from 8 percent in July and slightly below the statewide rate of 6.8 percent. Yet that’s still twice what it was a year ago at this time. More than 67,000 people were looking for work in August.
As of Wednesday, the final unemployment data for September was not available yet, but October could see another spike depending on several factors, said Adrian Lopez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA), the governing board and service provider for the regional workforce system.
While the historically high jobless rates across the country began with a shutdown of the economy in late March, unemployment has continued to be affected by both lockdowns and fluctuating coronavirus case counts. But fall is here, bringing with it not only a change in the weather but also new factors affecting employment.
“The unemployment data has been following the shutdown of the economy and then subsequent reopening of the economy, but it’s also following the number of COVID cases,” Lopez said. “Cases are on the downturn, but obviously schools are reopening and other things are happening with the economy – more [customer capacity] for occupancy, for example – so we’ll see what the result of that’s going to be.”
In addition, major air carriers are expected to announce massive layoffs starting Oct. 1. While the impact of that may not be felt as strongly in San Antonio as in a city such as Dallas, a hub for both American and Southwest airlines, another deadline relevant to the area is looming.
When the Small Business Administration in April and May doled out millions of dollars in forgivable loans to businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program, loan recipients were tied to a six-month time period during which they could not lay off workers or else the loan would not be forgiven.
“As we get closer toward that six months … there’s a real question about what happens to those folks,” Lopez said. “Do businesses continue to retain those employees or do they move to either lay off, furlough, or reduce the hours of those folks? And nobody knows the answer to that question – it’s just going to be a wait and see.”
In mid-August, WSA reopened its career centers in the 13-county region it serves, allowing people who did not have electronic devices or internet service to access its computers and support in person to aid in job searches and training. But Lopez said WSA encourages those filing for unemployment to use their phones and the agency’s online services if they can.
During August, about 11,500 people in Bexar County contacted WSA by phone, and another 7,200 called or sent an email, he said. That compares to a total of 200,000 visiting WSA career centers in all of 2019.
In the last six months, there were 122,000 area job listings, Lopez said, with many of those in the categories of health care and social assistance and finance and insurance. Employers posting the most jobs included USAA, Christus Health, University Health System, United Health Group, and Hospital Corporation of America.
The latest Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll results released Tuesday show that 60 percent of voters think the current unemployment rate is an extremely or very serious problem, just behind the spread of coronavirus at 64 percent.
However, there’s a partisan divide when it comes to both issues. While 74 percent who feel unemployment is a problem are Democrat, only 43 percent are Republican.
On Wednesday, Sarfin went skydiving to celebrate his return to work. “Such a blast,” he said after his fourth jump in recent weeks and landing back on his feet.