CLEVELAND — As more people get vaccinated and the weather gets warmer, restaurants are starting to see an upswing in business.
There’s just one problem with that though—many establishments across the country and in Northeast Ohio are experiencing a food service worker shortage.
Fewer Ohioans were out of work last month. The unemployment rate was at 4.7%, down from February and a year ago. The state saw gains in construction, manufacturing, education, health, business and profession services, while leisure and hospitality saw losses. Still, 272,000 Ohioans didn't have a job.
Those staffing shortages are hurting many businesses fighting to rebound as more customers come back in.
At Dina’s Pizza and Pub in Old Brooklyn, the tables are full and orders are coming in, but restaurant manager Tommy Walsh said there just aren’t enough employees to shoulder the load.
“Whenever we do receive complaints, it's rarely about anything other than the fact that we're understaffed,” Walsh said.
Walsh said despite getting about 10 applications a week, usually only one person will show up for an interview.
He chalks it up to a couple of factors.
“The second that the stimulus checks were released you just saw a significant drop off of employees,” Walsh said. “In addition to that, the unemployment that's been extended.”
Ohio Restaurant Association President and CEO John Barker said stimulus benefits do play a role in the shortage.
“Unemployment is an issue. There's no question about it. The intention by the government, both at the federal and state level, was to take care of people who are displaced and very much in need. No question about it. It was the right thing to do,” Barker said. “The problem we have now is these are looking like they're going to be extended all the way through the fall. On top of that, people are getting those big stimulus checks. And in some cases, they may be making more money staying at home than going back to work. And so it's a combination of factors.”
He said there are also other reasons keeping people from returning to work.
“We've heard the concerns about COVID, and 'I'm not quite ready to go back because maybe I have an elderly parent that I take care of or a child, or maybe I have a compromised health situation,'” Barker said.
All of those reasons, Barker said, are valid but are leaving restaurant owners in a tough spot with increasing vaccinations and warmer weather driving customers back to restaurants in droves.
“We're actually doing some things to reach out,” Barker said.
Barker said that includes a marketing campaign to bring workers back, focusing on workforce development and training programs, and using job boards.
“We just started the work today to really publicize and bring a lot of attention to something that we in the National Restaurant Association have called ‘serve success.’ And it's a training program. It's online,” Barker said. “We can do it in person, but with COVID, we haven't been. And it's a training program where folks can get certified to be a restaurant professional or to step it up and become a restaurant supervisor, but step it up even more to be a manager,” Barker said.
Barker said restaurant owners are also stepping up with incentives for workers.
“We're seeing some hiring and signing bonuses, that kind of thing you see in other industries, particularly for full time positions in the front of the house and really in the back of the house,” Barker said.
Employment benefits is one way Chef Dante Boccuzzi is hoping to keep a full staff at his restaurants. His newest spot, Goma, is set to open in June on East 4th Street.
“As far as pay, we’re definitely competitive with what's going on. At certain levels I offer insurance, health insurance,” Boccuzzi said.
Boccuzzi said hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough, but he’s hoping employment numbers will soon catch up to customer demand.
“It’s coming soon, whether you are ready to work now or not. Within the next few months, it's going to hit us all again, life is bouncing back, which is a great thing,” Boccuzzi said.
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