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Restaurants Are Struggling To Find Workers, But Is There Really A Shortage?

Restaurants throughout Bloomington, IN are advertising higher wages in hopes of attracting new workers. (Joey Mendolia, WTIU/WFIU News)

Restaurants that survived the pandemic now face another, unexpected challenge: finding enough workers to fully reopen.  

This new task might be more sustained than originally thought.

Jessica Fitch is used to wearing multiple hats, and an early summer Friday was no exception.  

Today she’s helping work in the kitchen preparing deliveries at Trailhead Pizza and on Sunday she’ll be filling multiple roles at her other Bloomington restaurant, Scenic View.  

That’s in addition to managing finances, orders, and planning for large events like this weekend’s graduation at Indiana University.

“The first delivery that our owner, Jenny, took was at Rockford Road, so that’s an hour round trip,” she explains.

Fitch is the general manager at a pair of Bloomington restaurants, and says about half her staff currently work at both to keep things running—including the owners.

“We’ve had job postings at both places for certainly, I mean at Scenic View coming up on a year,” she admitted, losing track of the time the positions had been posted. “Trailhead for almost six months.”

The situation Fitch and her staff face is commonplace.

While Demand Increases, Finding Help Remains A Struggle

“We had a board meeting, and a lot of our restaurant folks weren't there,” Patrick Tamm, the CEO at Indiana’s Restaurant and Lodging Association said. “I know what they were doing, they were working the grill, they were cleaning dishes, they were they were checking their co2.”

Tamm says restaurant owners are used to filling in – now they’re given no choice. It’s either clean tables and greet guests – or remain closed. 

“That’s the coffee delivery for Scenic View—I totally forgot she was here,” Fitch interrupts our conversation.  She quickly apologized, but the constant action makes it difficult to finish a thought.

Today, Fitch is working with her brother at Trailhead.

According to Tamm, there are “multiple family members are working in those restaurants that have never worked in the family restaurant, but they are now just to help out.”

With help at a premium, it is difficult for many restaurants to reopen in the way they would like.

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“That is a very unnatural, and I would say an almost painful process to say we can't take any more tables right now,” Fitch said. 

The problem comes down to scale.

“Because either we can't serve them properly [or] the food won't come out on time,” she admitted. “We're managing to what our staff can do.”

Tamm and Fitch blame the shortage on a number of factors.Many workers who were laid off when state issued stay at home orders have found work elsewhere.  

Remote roles in call centers or more flexible and stable incomes at a number of companies ranging from logistics to healthcare were and still are attractive. That’s especially true for parents of children in schools that haven’t returned to in-person instruction.

“50 percent of Indiana’s restaurants are owned by women,” Tamm said. “We outpace any industry in terms of ownership, in terms of diversity of gender, women, as well as minority of all kinds.”

Tamm says this is particularly true for those that have leadership roles. 

Is Government To Blame?

Many restaurant owners and some politicians believe businesses are competing with the federal government’s temporary $300 increase to unemployment benefits. Further, they say the state’s decision to continue pausing work requirement checks makes it difficult for owners.

Michael Hicks, a Professor of Economics at Ball State university doesn’t fully agree with that assessment, however. 

Hicks believes there are bigger factors at play. While data shows Indiana has around 130,000 fewer residents working today than before the pandemic, he’s confident a large number won’t ever return to the workforce.  

“I think there are a lot of families who are going to choose not to re-enter the labor market, certainly not low wage work.”  

He believes the quick return to normal many restaurants had hoped for won’t be on the menu.

“If I were an employer, I would consider the challenges in finding low wage work as a permanent problem,” he admitted. “That's certainly not going to go away anytime soon.”

He’s less concerned with the struggles certain industries face, and believes we’re witnessing an economic recovery catalyzed by generous stimulus payments.

“If workers are moving from low wage jobs into higher wage jobs—whether it be in a different sector, or would there be online—that's a good thing for the economy,” he said. “Even if it means that some restaurants, hotels and bars have to close or have to modify operations, that's called we have a name for that—it's called economic growth.”

In the meantime, Fitch is just thankful to be training some new help in the kitchen. 

She’s hoping to hire about a dozen new people, and says she’s willing to pay higher wages and work with people to develop a schedule that work for everyone.

She says few people are even interviewing for her positions, but is hopeful this summer and widely available vaccines can serve up some much-needed hope.

Most experts agree that many of the changes currently being experienced are to be expected after the massive economic shift resulting from COVID-19.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

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