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Alabama businesses hiring again, but full recovery still distant

Brads Bar-B-Q

Waitress April Wagner serves patrons during lunch at Brad's Bar-B-Q in Oxford on Friday. The workforce at Brad's is almost at its full, pre-pandemic strength.

Two months ago, William Bradford was preparing to lay off 22 employees and wondering how long any restaurant could survive a state-ordered shutdown. 

This Friday, Brad's Barbecue in Oxford was very much still in operation with all but two of Bradford's laid-off employees back on the job.

"We've been so super busy it's ridiculous," a grateful Bradford said.

The re-hiring at Brad's Barbecue is exactly the sort of thing state officials hoped to see when they relaxed pandemic-related restrictions, in phases, over the month of May. Shelter-in-place orders, intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, also put a freeze on businesses big and small. Unemployment in Anniston's city limits hit 22 percent in April, largely because of those closures. 

With most of those restrictions now lifted, one might expect a hiring spree to replace furloughed workers. 

There are signs, though, that not every business is recovering as fast as Brad's. "Help wanted" ads on the Alabama Department of Labor's job-search website are down 21 percent compared to the same time last year, according to numbers released by the Labor Department this week. A bright spot is that most of those jobs are in retail and health care, two sectors that saw big drops during the shutdown. 

And there's evidence that the economy is still shedding plenty of jobs, even as companies reopen and rehire. More than 27,000 people filed initial unemployment claims in Alabama last week, according to Labor Department numbers. That's better than in past weeks — Alabama lost more than twice that in every week of April — but it’s also a sign that layoff season isn't over yet. 

"You have to realize that the businesses that are operating are not operating at 100 percent," said Ahmad Ijaz, an analyst for the Center for Economic and Business Research at the University of Alabama.

Ijaz said there are jobs that likely won't return even when the economy begins rolling again.

"That happens in every recession," he said. "Businesses change the way they operate and they find out they can do without some of their employees."

Economists at the University of Chicago earlier this month released a study arguing that as many as 40 percent of seemingly temporary layoffs during the pandemic could be permanent. Their numbers are based partly on actual outcomes of laid-off workers in the 1981 recession, on the notion that some businesses will simply close, and on coronavirus-related realignments that will permanently change the economy.

Ijaz said he expects many jobs in retail to vanish permanently because of the shift to online shopping.

"That was going on long before COVID-19, but now online shopping is really taking off," he said. 

Industry shifts are of course a problem for workers who have to look for new jobs. But they're also a worry for communities, who want to hang on to the workers who might otherwise leave. 

Don Hopper, director of the Calhoun County  Economic Development Council, said the council is organizing a job fair for local manufacturers seeking new workers. He said one of the goals of the job fair is to offer something for workers affected by upcoming closures of manufacturing plants in Anniston, such as Honeywell Aerospace and Monarch Windows. They're skilled workers who'll likely leave the area if that's what it takes to get a job, he said. 

"We want to keep them here," Hopper said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.