Panhandle Restaurant Owners Struggle to Find Workers

A cashier helps a customer out at Gering’s Prime Cut Meat Market and Restaurant on Oct. 19, 2021. (Christopher Borro/Star-Herald via AP)
Christopher Borro
Scottsbluff Star-Herald

Jennifer Ahlers, manager of the Gering Bakery, had an interview with a job applicant on a recent Monday. It was her first such interview in months.

Ahlers said it was the longest the business has gone without an interview in the 16 years she’s worked there.

“We used to have people come in and apply on the daily,” she said.

But like several eateries and businesses across the state and the country, Gering Bakery is in the midst of a worker shortage.

It’s not for a lack of trying on the company’s part, Ahlers said. Through radio ads, word of mouth and Facebook posts, the people at Gering Bakery routinely make it known that they are hiring.

Oftentimes, applicants express interest in joining the company as well.

When it comes time for Ahler to sit down and meet with them, however, she says they never show up.

“I will schedule interviews in 30-minute intervals for a full day and have maybe three people show up,” she told The Scottsbluff Star-Herald.

Nebraska currently has an unemployment rate of just 2.2%. It’s the lowest in the nation, and the lowest rate ever recorded in state history. However, it also creates an imbalance between the number of open positions and those looking to fill them.

“(People) don’t seem to want to work,” Ron Ahlers said, Jennifer’s father-in-law and the owner of the bakery. He has operated it since 1989.

“They’re not motivated to seek out a full-time or even part-time job.”

The baking positions they hire for are often late at night and physically demanding, but the job itself is rather easy to do, he said. They have a staff of around 30 across various locations, but some workers don’t even last a day before quitting.

“It’s not like we’re asking people to do a 10-hour day. Most of the shifts are 6 to 8 hours,” Jennifer Ahlers said.

Even when hiring for part-time jobs of only 10 hours a week, she said it’s difficult to find people willing to put in the time.

Owners of local establishments said they’re having a hard time competing with fast food restaurants for both workers and customers. Fewer employees lead to more overtime which leads to less profit. Less profit leads to higher prices which lead to fewer customers. It’s a vicious cycle that can be alleviated by having a fully-staffed workforce.

When Marty Manley of Prime Cut Meat Market and Restaurant was asked if his advertisements had attracted new workers, his response was a resounding “No.” His restaurant has been a community staple for nearly 47 years, and currently employs a staff of 18, but he hasn’t been able to grow his workforce.

“In a normal year, I would probably get 50 to 70 applications per year,” Manley said. “Since COVID, I’m lucky to get 25.”

Prime Cut is fortunate to have a low turnover rate, he said. But many people who apply to fill vacant positions there have no intention of actually working, according to Manley.

“A lot of them are filling applications so they can go to unemployment (offices) and say, ‘Yeah I’m applying.’ We go to interview them and they don’t show up,” Manley said.

Manley said another major impact on his restaurant is the supply and price of the meat it sells. Companies either don’t have the meat he needs in stock, or have it in very short supply thanks to worker shortages they are suffering from. With costs increasing, Manley has needed to raise his prices to match them. He put out a sign apologizing for the price hike, assuring his customers they will be lowered as soon as the meat costs do the same.

“The cost of beef in the last year and a half has almost tripled in price, but people don’t realize that,” he said. “I don’t want to ever think about closing, but y’know, it’s an option nowadays. If you don’t have the staff to serve the customer (and) you don’t have the product to sell to the customer, what can you do?

“At this state, with the COVID and the economy, I don’t know how long it’s going to take before it’s gonna change. If it ever will change.”

Longstanding eating establishments like Gering Bakery and Prime Cut continue to persevere despite the stresses. But their proprietors say the work shortage is an epidemic which has impacted every type of industry.

“I’ve heard it from the banks,” Jennifer Ahlers said. “I’ve heard it from the bars. The retail stores, the restaurants ... every day there’s another story about a company that has to close their doors early or close their lobby because they can’t get enough people to wait on people.

“And this is in Scottsbluff and Gering. This is in our hometown.”

This story first appeared in The Scottsbluff Star-Herald. It was distributed as a member exchange story by The Associated Press.


User login

Omaha Daily Record

The Daily Record
3323 Leavenworth Street
Omaha, Nebraska
United States

Tele (402) 345-1303
Fax (402) 345-2351