Restaurants struggle to find workers as pandemic eases

Unemployment money competition, childcare struggles, and fears of getting sick keeping workers home

As restrictions are eased, businesses struggle to hire

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - There are signs up at restaurants all around Wilmington advertising that they are hiring for all positions. Restaurant owners say business is picking up as COVID-19 numbers go down, but they are struggling to hire employees to handle the increased demand.

Between people being nervous about catching COVID-19, to childcare struggles during virtual learning, to not wanting to work when generous unemployment benefits are being offered to stay home, it’s creating challenges for restaurant owners trying to find the staff to feed all of their hungry customers.

“We have all this business, but we can’t handle it now,” Slice of Life Owner Ray Worrell said just before the lunch-time rush on Wednesday. He’s been in the restaurant business since the 1980s, and now owns a successful pizza chain. Worrell said he’s happy the governor recently eased capacity limits, theoretically allowing him to open the door to more customers and stay open later. But due to a worker shortage, he can’t.

“Normally, before COVID, we were open from 11 in the morning to 3 in the morning, 7 days a week. Right now, we’re just open 11 to 11, and we have to keep it at that because we just don’t have the staff to stay open later,” Worrell explained.

Worrell has dozens of open positions he hasn’t been able to fill. Like many restaurant owners, he says he gets very few applications, and sometimes after he does hire people, they quit after just a day or two on the job. That means the staff he does have is extra busy, trying to get everything covered with fewer people to help out.

“The day gets longer, the list gets longer as far as prep or what we’ve got to do in here as far as cleaning or anything like that, so it is a little stressful,” Kitchen Manager Eric Lunesford told WECT. He said he’s hopeful that as more people get vaccinated and the COVID numbers continue to trend down, they’ll be able to start filling some of their many job openings.

After a financially challenging year, it’s especially hard for restaurant owners not to be able to take full advantage of the recent surge in customers. The President of Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) thinks there are a lot of factors at play, but notes that some people making more money staying home than they could going to work isn’t helping.

“I think unemployment is a factor,” WDI Director Holly Childs said. “I mean there have been programs, obviously the PPP program and other programs, that have sort of tried to fix the situation. But you kind of wonder too, are the unemployment and keeping that — is it keeping people from applying for the jobs?”

Despite the recent challenges, some employees are glad to be keeping busy.

“I’m a worker bee. I always have been since I was able to work, since I was a little kid. I’m always itching to work. To each his own on that one. If you don’t want to work, that’s fine. I don’t mind working,” Lunesford said.

It’s not just the restaurant industry that’s struggling to find workers. Some hotels are having a hard time hiring, and it’s also really hard to find a ride through companies like Uber and Lyft because of driver shortages.

“I think there is just a shortage of workers right now,” Childs said. “People that were in those types of industries. Like you said, there is a shortage of Uber drivers. They may be working for Uber Eats now, because people are getting home delivery now. I think there has just been a shift and hopefully it’ll shift back before long, whenever it’s safer to do so.”

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