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TRIPLE THREAT: Covid fear, stimulus checks, benefits boost shrink labor pool

Restaurants are accommodating the hungry herd strolling along Hendersonville’s flower-adorned serpentine Main Street, stretching the corps of wait staff and line cooks thin.

As the annual rebirth of tourism swells traffic downtown and beyond, restaurants typically ramp up staffing and extend hours. This year is unlike any other, though, as the dining spots battle lingering Covid fears, compete with one another for the limited supply of labor and confront the challenge from congressional action that made  staying home more financially appealing.

Renzo’s Ristorante, at the corner of North Main and Fifth Avenue, has not managed to overcome the challenges yet. At Renzo’s, wide windowpanes that might ordinarily feature signs about nightly specials or entertainment shout a plaintive plea: “Hiring. Let’s Open!”

In order to open, Maietto needs help.

“I put ads everywhere, Indeed, Zip Recruiter, Craigs list. I have not got even one” applicant, he said. If someone does make contact, they express interest with a condition. “I am taking unemployment,” they tell him. “I can come only if you pay cash.”

“Of course I cannot do cash,” Maietto said. “That’s a fraud to begin with.”

The restaurant worker shortage is a national problem. Although restaurant employment has risen each month this year, jobs at full-service restaurants in February remained 20 percent lower than a year ago, the New York Times reported last week. Experts say there are a variety of factors contributing to workforce shortage. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act Plan Congress passed in March includes a $300 week boost through Sept. 6 for eligible unemployed workers. In North Carolina, which has an average weekly jobless benefit of $236, the pay for not working comes to $536.

While Payroll Protection Plan money helped restaurants stay afloat last year, there is some evidence the newest rescue plan produces a disincentive to return to work.

“The government gave me money to employ people and then the government gives the people money that I want to employ to stay home,” Maietto said.


Market is tighter than pre-pandemic

Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, sees the labor market firsthand in his dual role as director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.

“Right now our employment market is tighter than it was when the unemployment rate was 2½ percent,” he said. “A lot of employers do cite the increased unemployment compensation as being a barrier. Earlier, there were Federal Reserve that stated it wasn’t necessarily a barrier for people going back to work but that was early on in the pandemic.”

Listening to employers at a Career Expo last week, Ramsey heard a variety of factors for the workforce shortage.

“No. 1, you’ve got people that are Covid-scared,” he said. “There’s a report out that nationally our labor force is smaller by about 5 million people because a certain subset of our population is just really fearful of contracting Covid. Second is access to child care and schooling. Many of our schools are going back to in-person learning but certainly earlier that was a tremendous challenge. For a single mom that had school-aged kids, that was an almost impossible situation. And certainly the federal assistance, with additional (cash) stimulus payments people are receiving” is a factor.

The director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Owners told Ramsey that “they have restaurants that have survived the pandemic (that) may close because they can’t find help.” On a vacation to Hilton Head, Charleston and Savannah, Ramsey and his wife were greeted with signs at restaurants that advised, “We’re short-staffed and it will be a while before we can serve you.”

“We have about 18,000 job openings in our region right now,” Ramsey said of the Land of Sky metro made up of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties. “Nationally, based on Indeed and some other sources, we have more job openings now than we did pre-pandemic. … Prior to the pandemic we went 69 months having the lowest unemployment rate in the state.” The four-county Land of Sky region now has a 5.1 percent unemployment rate. “We’re still down about 12,000 jobs from where we were a year ago, and we have around 12,000 or so people less working. We need more people to get into the workforce than are currently looking for work.”

A bounty for line cooks

Dave Rutecki, the owner of Appalachian Deli on Hendersonville’s Main Street, has recently felt the challenge of hiring and found a creative way to overcome it.

“We were having a great deal of trouble with it until about two weeks ago and I got the two people I was after,” he said. “I don’t know if I just got lucky or I put a bounty on their heads and that helped. We were offering $100 to anybody who finds me an employee plus $100 to anyone we hire and is still here after 30 days.”

He had trouble filling jobs last summer, too, before an even bigger federal unemployment check boost ran out.

“Late last year, I tried hiring as well and I was having no luck,” he said. “That was our thought, too, that they were making more money just sitting at home and waiting until that goes away.”

Caroline Gunter, owner of Wag! Unique Pet Boutique and chair of the Downtown Advisory Committee, said restaurants are struggling more than shops, which typically are family owned and operated and close in the early evening.

“There are signs on most all the doors of all the (dining) places saying ‘we’re hiring,’” she said. “I think most of the retail is OK. Most of the retail is run by the owner and a family member, or the owner and two part-time retired people. We don’t have major retail places that require a lot of people.”


Industries are ‘competing for the same people’

As more people get vaccinated and emboldened to travel and dine at restaurants, the pressure mounts to fill hospitality jobs. But the mountain area labor shortage reaches far beyond one industry.

“It’s not hotels competing against hotels or restaurants competing against other restaurants or manufacturers competing against manufacturers” for workers, Ramsey said. “It’s health care competing against manufacturing and manufacturing competing against hospitality. For that entry level worker, all these industries are competing for the same people.”

Despite the imbalance at the moment between jobs available and job seekers, Ramsey is optimistic that the economy is on the way to recovery. He sees the region’s economic health tracking directly with the public health war against Covid-19.

“There was a lot of talk (last year) about how long it was going to take for us to get back to where we were in March 2020,” he said. “There was a lot of talk that it would take us two years. This is where people getting vaccinated is so critical. This was a health-induced recession and in my lifetime that’s never occurred.”