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Jobless rate hits double digits in Waco, statewide

Everybody predicted the jobless figures for April would look ugly, and they did. Texas shed 1.2 million jobs between mid-March and mid-April, and Waco’s unemployment rate hit double digits as COVID-19 applied a stranglehold to hiring.

More than 20,000 fewer Waco-area residents had jobs as of last month than at the same time last year, and the jobless rate has surged to 10.6% from 2.8%.

The pandemic hit leisure and hospitality the hardest in the tracking period from mid-March to mid-April, forcing hotels and tourist attractions to close. The Texas Workforce Commission reported Friday that the sector lost 530,200 jobs in April, “the largest over-the-month decrease for any major industry going back to 1990.”

Waco-based economist Ray Perryman said the totals do not surprise him.

The local economy fared better than many, he said.

“In Waco, higher education and health care are cornerstone industries not hit as hard as the energy sector, for example,” Perryman said in an email. “Not surprisingly, the largest drop was in leisure and hospitality.”

Digging down, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported the 1.2 million jobs lost statewide during the most recent reporting period represent “a historic 69% annualized decline,” according to a press release from the agency.

For comparison, Texas lost 44,600 jobs in March.

The drop came so swiftly and calamitously the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has had to alter its methodology to keep pace.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in recent history, and the standard time-series model that we use to forecast the Texas economy is unable to capture the rapid economic decline due to shelter-in-place mandates and social distancing nor the expected rebound in the second half as these constraints subside,” Dallas Fed Assistant Vice President and Senior Economist Keith Phillips said in the press release.

Using the tweaked approach, the Dallas Fed estimates jobs will decline 11.7% this year, and employment in December will be 11.4 million.

As of April, 11.6 million Texans held non-farm jobs in Texas.

“Using the modified model, we estimate that employment will decline by a smaller percentage in May and begin to recover near mid-year, but prolonged weakness in the energy sector in the second half of the year will dampen the pace of recovery,” Phillips wrote.

Jennifer Branch, director of existing industries and workforce development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said hiring continues locally.

“The 10.6% jobless rate for the Waco MSA is below both the U.S. (14.4%) and Texas (13%) rate, which we attribute to our diversified economy,” Branch said in an email response to questions. “As expected, retail and hospitality have been the most impacted industry sectors, but as the economy opens back up, we expect those sectors to begin to recover.”

She said the chamber posts job openings at www.WacoTXJobs.com. Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. the chamber hosts a virtual job spotlight. Employers representing an array of sectors join live and share information about job availability and critical needs, Branch said in her email.

Upcoming episodes will spotlight the city of Waco’s hiring plans and those of Diversified Product Development and a new downtown entertainment venue, Stumpy’s Hatchet House, Branch said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a measurable effect on the Texas economy,” Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Bryan Daniel wrote in a statement. “While we will continue to provide assistance to those seeking unemployment benefits, many employers are hiring, and TWC is working to provide resources to job seekers as well as employers as the state opens up.”

The Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Falls and McLennan counties, saw its jobless rate fall to 2.8% during the mid-March to mid-April reporting period last year as Waco burnished its reputation as a Magnolia-fueled tourist meccas with hotel occupancy rates and hotel revenues setting records.

Fast forward to April this year, and the workforce commission estimates 101,400 people have jobs in the Waco MSA, down from 121,800 a year earlier.

According to workforce commission numbers released Friday, Waco’s civilian labor force stands at 113,400, a number that includes both the employed and unemployed.

A year ago that number stood at 125,200.

Misery created by these depressing numbers has taken a human toll.

Michelle Shelton, 41, was back waiting tables Friday at the Czech American restaurant in West. She recommends the sausage and kraut and the lemon pie. She may return to her pre-COVID-19 second job at Rocky’s Roadhouse in Lacy Lakeview. She and her husband have grown children and rent a home.

“In the beginning, it did affect us,” Shelton said by phone. “I think everyone was in a bind, but my husband was an essential employee at his work, so we were kind of able to survive the crash.”

A $1,200 stimulus check helped the family make ends meet.

“Most of my friends were just like me,” Shelton said. “One is a business owner, has her own hair salon, and she’s just now getting back situated.”

Kanitra LeDoux moved from Sulphur, Louisiana, to Waco, and secured a position at Saltgrass Steak House in Legends Crossing. A month later, she found herself pursuing unemployment benefits, her job a coronavirus casualty. The search ended not in Texas but in Louisiana.

Now she and her children plan a move to Killeen, where LeDoux plans to settle down with a former Fort Hood solider, and maybe find a job.

“The right person finally found me,” LeDoux said.

Drive-in graduation
Rapoport Academy kicks off graduation season with drive-in commencement

Waco’s Rapoport Academy blazed the trail Friday for a host of high schools planning socially distanced commencement ceremonies.

Thirty-four high school seniors from the charter school system’s Meyer High School gathered in cars at the parking lot of the school a 1020 Elm Ave. for a drive-in graduation.

It appears to be the first graduation in McLennan County in a spring weighed down by the COVID-19 pandemic. While Gov. Greg Abbott has set May 29 as the first day for high school graduations, the rules exempt drive-in graduations and parades.

Dressed in full graduation garb on a muggy May evening, Rapoport seniors sat with their families in cars and waited their turn to pick up their diplomas. They logged onto Facebook Live on mobile devices and heard speeches from their valedictorian, class president and school officials.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Rapoport Academy’s Meyer High School valedictorian Haven Booker waits in her van after giving her speech to the graduating class during Friday’s drive-in ceremony broadcast on Facebook Live.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Rapoport Academy’s Meyer High School valedictorian Haven Booker walks to the podium to give her speech to the graduating class, while the audience listened in their cars on Facebook Live.

One by one, seniors approached the stage wearing masks Superintendent Alexis Neumann made with green fabric, Rapoport’s school color. Onstage with a masked Neumann, the seniors picked up their diplomas from the podium and approached a camera for the official picture without a mask. As each student received the diploma, the crowd honked its horns.

Rapoport wrapped up classes May 15 and officially ended the school year this week. Neumann said staff, parents and students preferred to have the ceremony on campus rather than at a stadium, so officials decided to waste no time.

“Everybody seems to be excited about trying to give them as much of a community graduation as we can,” she said.

In a plan cleared with the city of Waco, Rapoport staff directed cars into parking spaces and limited traffic to three cars per senior. Those attending were required to stay in their cars with the windows rolled up to watch the ceremony.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Rapoport Academy Meyer High School graduates and supporters wait in their cars and listen on Facebook Live during their graduation ceremony Friday. Only the graduates were allowed out of their vehicles to pick up their diplomas.

Class President Gabriel Cervantes attended with his immediate family, including his brother, who drove down from Denton.

“A lot of people are glad we’re at least having graduation, while some people are disappointed,” he said before the ceremony. “I put myself in the disappointed category because of the coronavirus. It won’t be like years before. It’ll be a lot more distant. It’s still a good moment for us. It’s just necessary to take all these precautions.”

Veterans miss camaraderie as they wait out coronavirus restrictions

Every year on Memorial Day, veterans by the dozens gather to honor the war dead. While it is a solemn occasion, for many veterans it is also a time of social conviviality. From selling Buddy Poppies to laying wreaths at cemeteries, veterans come from all around to participate in annual Memorial Day events.

But this year ― thanks to the coronavirus pandemic ― just about everything is scrapped, including the annual Memorial Day event at the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco.

The absence of a social life during the pandemic is of the utmost concern for area veterans. Because of aging and underlying health conditions, many of those veterans fall into high-risk population groups that COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, has targeted the most.

For some veterans, is not the physical toll that concerns them, but rather the social and the economic tolls.

“Stopping the economy concerns me more than my death,” said Ken Stafford, 67, a Waco resident and former Army private who served in West Berlin at a now-defunct Cold War listening station. “If I caught COVID-19 and died, I’ve lived a good 67 years. Our economy is like a bike wheel. It’s spinning upside down so fast it’s out of control.”

Despite multiple health problems, Stafford did not self-isolate. He did wear a mask when his favorite restaurant opened back up May 1, and he would have continued to patronize the restaurant if it had never closed, he said.

“I’m not too concerned with the physical effects,” Stafford said.

Waco resident Alton Leuschner, 79, is concerned about the economy as well, but also about the social affairs of his fellow veterans.

A sailor on the USS Saratoga during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he served 25 years and left the military as a master chief petty officer.

Leuschner did not think much about the virus when it first started spreading.

“I assumed it was a flu-like deal that would pass,” he said.

He got kind of sick early on and thought maybe he had contracted the virus and had become immune. He did not take any precautions for at least a couple of weeks. But as he read more about it in the newspaper, he started to take it more seriously, isolating at home with his family and wearing a mask if he went out to the grocery store.

Still, he could not wait to get back to his routine. After an extended time of not going out to eat, he ate out recently with a group of about seven people. No one in the group wore a mask.

Leuschner thinks it is time to open things back up. But more than that, he wants to see social activities for veterans resume.

“Spending time with veterans is a mainstay of other veterans,” he said.

As commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2148 in Waco, Leuschner stays pretty busy. Post members volunteer in a variety of activities, including providing a coffee bar at the Waco VA hospital and offering weekly breakfast and lunch to veterans at the Veterans One Stop center two times a month. Of course, all that is on hold now because of the coronavirus.

Leuschner and fellow Post 2148 veterans Jerry Guinn and Johnny Johnson are all active members, with the latter two men participating in the Waco VA coffee bar, and meals at the One Stop.

“I think it affects them (veterans) a lot,” said Guinn, an Air Force veteran and surgeon who served with the 483rd Security Police Squadron, K-9.

As such, he spent his nights alone in the jungle of Vietnam with his furry friend, protecting the perimeter’s security. Being alone is not that much of a problem for him, although he does have a wife. Still, he enjoys his activities and misses them.

Guinn has specific underlying health issues, but he did not take the threat of the virus as seriously at first. He remembers that he and his wife got deathly sick in late December. He now believes it was the coronavirus, although the first known case in the United States came in mid-January, after a Washington state man returned from travel in China, where the outbreak started about a month earlier. Guinn knew of six people who got sick around the time he and his wife did, with one dying and two hospitalized. He is more cautious today.

“I can’t imagine something like this being that bad,” Guinn said. “I guess I was wrong.”

Johnny Johnson also did not foresee what was coming. Germ warfare crossed his mind.

“If you’re a veteran, you think of that because that’s what you fight most of the time,” he said.

Johnson, too, worked with dogs, serving in the Army with 37th Infantry Platoon, Scout Dog. His job was mostly in reconnaissance within a 100-mile radius of Saigon. He is also junior vice commander of the VFW post.

Johnson started paying attention when the virus started spreading away from China.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what’s going on here? How can it spread so fast?’” he said.

Still, he did not take it seriously until the symptoms came out, because his wife has underlying health issues. He is more concerned for her.

And he is more cautious than Stafford, Leuschner and the others. He uses a towel to handle the gas pump and makes sure to wear a mask. He washes his hand frequently, as he tends to scratch his face.

Both Guinn and Johnson, along with Leuschner, are concerned about the economy. Even Johnson, with all his precautions, would like to see things open back up.

“We need to get it (the economy) going,” Johnson said. “We just need to be careful about how we go back to work.”

Guinn said it is important to realize every state is not in the same situation.

“If you take some of those states out ― New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania ― it’s really not bad at all,” he said. “Certain areas can’t open, but the rest of the country could open. A little common sense would be nice.”

And Guinn, Leuschner and Johnson are eager to see things open back up socially for veterans.

“That does a lot to talk to another veteran,” Johnson said.

“I really do miss the VA and the Veterans Stop,” Guinn said.

A spokesperson for the Veterans One Stop said the weekly breakfast and lunches would not resume until late summer. The center is still accepting clients by appointment only.

Photos: Memorial Day weekend around Waco

Photos: Memorial Day around Waco

More than 730 mom-and-pop shops in McLennan County apply for local relief grants

More than 730 small businesses in McLennan County employing 10 or fewer people applied for grants Waco and McLennan County agreed to make available to ventures waylaid and damaged by COVID-19.

At last count, an advisory committee and Waco City Manager Wiley Stem III had approved 73 requests valued at $184,000, for an average grant of $2,520, a little more than half the maximum $5,000 allowed per grant. The counting and assignment of grades continues, city of Waco Housing Director Galen Price said. With enough applications already submitted to deplete the $830,000 available, the CovidWaco.com portal through which applicants placed their requests has closed for now, Price said.

If the situation changes, the process could start anew, he said.

The Waco City Council and McLennan County Commissioners Court agreed to spend money from the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. war chest to assist mostly mom-and-pop establishments get over the hump as various stimulus devices, including Small Business Administration-sponsored initiatives, pave the way for longer-term relief. Qualified applicants must operate in the county, have 10 or fewer employees and must have suffered loss of income because of COVID-19 between March 17 and April 30.

Businesses benefiting from the program, dubbed the Small Business Emergency Recovery Fund, will be expected to make public their participation either with signs posted on the premises or via social media, Price said.

“The biggest need we’ve seen is help with rent,” he said.

The advisory committee looking at applications includes, besides Price, John Bible, CEO of the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce; McLennan County Administrator Dustin Chapman; Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce; Jon Passavant, CEO of Startup Waco; Alfred Solano, president of the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; and Waco Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson.

Photo gallery: Waco reopens for business on May 1

Waco reopens for business: Scenes around town on May 1