Maybe it’s the extra unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of the industry. Maybe it’s some of both, or any number of other factors. What’s certain, though, is that a labor shortage is taking its toll on restaurants, and some in the industry expect another difficult summer.
“It’s no secret that restaurants have been hit hard over the past year with inconsistent and illogical executive orders,” Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles said Tuesday during a stop in Owensboro for his “Restaurant Roundtables” series primarily aimed at listening to emerging issues across the Commonwealth.
“I think there needs to be a serious conversation about government benefits right now,” Quarles said. “We’re hearing across the state that there may be a disincentive to go back to work.”
Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, pointed to those two factors — multiple executive orders with varying guidelines, and government benefits — as likely primary reasons for the growing labor shortage.
“All of last year, we were like a yo-yo,” she said of the restaurant industry. Every single time a restriction changed, it always involved us, always. … Just the constant back-and-forth I think really forced some of our workers to get other jobs. The people that want to stay working and have the ability to stay working, chose to take jobs in other industries because they had to, for whatever reason. We’ve lost some of them long-term, maybe forever.”
For those who receive unemployment benefits, Roof said, it’s sometimes easier or at least more enticing to stay home rather than go through the daily grind required for work, especially with the stimulus money thrown in.
Roof said some workers may have also been unable or unwilling to return until other industries — namely schools — completely reopened because young children couldn’t be left unattended.
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn owner Patrick Bosley said there was already an industry-wide problem of finding and retaining good help, and the pandemic has highlighted and accelerated that and other issues.
“Hiring good people was already a challenge prior to COVID, it just magnified it,” Bosley said. “I don’t know of any businesses not trying to hire people. It’s a complex problem. Definitely being paid to not work is a contributing factor to people not working. The people on unemployment, will at some point, have to look for jobs.”
But that is months away, at least. Roof said the general consensus is at least August. Bosley thinks September.
Oralis Raddila, founder and manager at Don Mario’s in downtown Owensboro, was more hopeful that the problem would subside before then despite facing her own staffing challenges.
At times, Raddila has had to man the kitchen or perform other cleaning duties. Whatever has to be done, she’ll step in — she can’t afford not to if she wants to keep customers satisfied.
Don Mario’s has lost two career servers and a few other young workers for various reasons, including needing a more stable income with no definitive end to restaurant restrictions in sight.
Raddila said it’s also hard to find new workers when they can make more either at a different job or by staying on unemployment.
“It’s been a little difficult trying to keep staff because of all the money that is being thrown out,” she said. “As a local restaurant owner, it’s hard. I can’t top $15/hour. It’s almost impossible, but then again, I need the staff. Being a local restaurant, your customers expect you to be there all the time.”
Bosley said Moonlite has been able to keep most of their staff.
“Most of my help stayed through the pandemic,” he said. “They like where they work. As people are trying to hire employees, it’s important that the employees like where they work. It’s not all about the paycheck, it’s about the quality of life. We have a low turnover rate, even through COVID.”
Still, he knows there’s a potential problem — and he’s heard of plenty of other restaurants going through difficult situations.
Roof said those situations are unique to Kentucky, but that doesn’t make it less of an issue.
“Restaurants tell me every day ‘I’m turning customers away’ or ‘On the weekend, we just turn our online ordering function off because we can’t do that too.’ I had an operator in Bowling Green that said they had to physically remove tables because guests were getting mad that the hostess wouldn’t sit them, but they couldn’t because there was no one to cover that section,” Roof said.
The jobs are there. The demand from the customer is there. All that’s left is finding people to fill the positions.
“I think there are a lot of factors (why there is a labor shortage),” Roof said. “All of those factors, I think, just amount to the fact that everybody is desperate for help. “I think the solution is time. … I think everybody kind of has August-September (as a sense of when things will start to return to normal). It’s going to be a really long summer to get through to get to that point.”