Small Businesses Scramble for Help as Openings Go Unfilled


Workers at Braised in the South pose for a photo in Johns Island, S.C., Sept. 23, 2020. The restaurant and food truck business is having trouble finding workers during the pandemic. Many small businesses find hiring more difficult because many would-be staffers fear contracting COVID-19 on the job. (Hannah Albert via AP)
By 
Joyce M. Rosenberg
The Associated Press

It looks like something to celebrate: small businesses posting “Help Wanted” signs as the economy edges toward normalcy. Instead, businesses are having trouble filling the jobs, which in turn hurts their ability to keep up with demand for their products or services.

Owners say that some would-be workers are worried about catching COVID-19 or they believe they’d prefer to live off unemployment benefits that are significantly higher amid the pandemic. Child care is another issue — parents aren’t able to work when they need to tend to or home-school their children. For some people, a combination of factors go into their decision not to seek work.

When Steve Klatt and Brandon Lapp set up interviews for the restaurant and food truck business, they’re lucky if 1 out of 15 applicants comes in.

“The people who do show up, all assume their unemployment is running out,” said Klatt, whose business, Braised in the South, is located in Johns Island, South Carolina. The maximum weekly unemployment benefits in the state are $626 including $300 in federal coronavirus relief payments; in some states, maximum unemployment is over $700 a week.

Klatt and Lapp need 20 people to run the business well but have only five staffers. Former chefs, the owners and their wives are working in the kitchen and on the truck to keep things running. Klatt and Lapp recently decided to curtail their Sunday hours and close Mondays to give everyone a break.

“The hit to the bottom line will be noticeable, but it’s not worth burning out the few awesome people we do have working for us,” Klatt said.

Businesses of all sizes are struggling with hiring even with millions of Americans unemployed and as increasing numbers of people get vaccinated and look forward to a more normal life. A census survey taken in late March shows that 6.3 million didn’t seek work because they had to care for a child, and 4.1 million said they feared contracting or spreading the virus.

But smaller companies that often can’t offer pay and benefits as generous as larger companies have a tougher time.

“A shortage of talent is nothing new for small businesses, but the circumstances surrounding this shortage are entirely different,” said Jill Chapman, a consultant with Insperity, a human resources provider.

The National Federation of Independent Business found in a March survey of its own members that 42% had job openings they couldn’t fill. Owners cited higher unemployment benefits as one factor. And a study released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a 10% increase in unemployment benefits during the pandemic led to a 3.6% drop in job applications.

“Unemployment benefits allow workers to be able to wait longer before they take a job, which can make hiring harder,” said Ioana Marinescu, a University of Pennsylvania professor who co-authored the study.

Companies whose work is done inside homes — including plumbers, contractors and pest control businesses — find many prospective hires are afraid of contracting the virus on a job. Meanwhile, demand for their services is up people are spending more time at home.

At Jake Romano’s Ottawa, Ontario, plumbing business, job candidates are gravitating toward commercial plumbing rather than having to visit five to 10 homes a day. Even when Romano finds a good prospect for his company, John the Plumber, he’s often disappointed.

“We had a really good applicant, who I found on Facebook. He agreed to come onboard, everything was looking good. I was excited, he was excited. Then, bam! He changed his mind,” said Romano, who’s looking for two licensed plumbers to add to his current staff of 10.

Economist Joe Brusuelas said child care is another issue that may extend owners’ struggles to find workers.

“Until the schools are reopened and avenues of child care normalized, small firms in general, as well as food, beverage, leisure and hospitality, in particular, are going to face staffing challenges until later this fall at the earliest,” said Brusuelas, chief economist with the consulting firm RSM.

Jillian Melton was laid off from a Seasons 52 restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee, last spring when the pandemic shut it down. Melton, who had worked at the restaurant for seven years, can’t work a regular schedule; she has three children at home from school and she’s caring for her 93-year-old grandmother. Babysitters and nurses are in short supply.

Melton said employers need to understand that many workers have compromised immune systems or limited availability because schools and day care centers are closed. Some people, upended by the pandemic, are just looking for new lines of work, she said.

“All of it is just a hot mess,” she said.

Child care is one reason why the pool of available workers has shrunk dramatically at Let Mommy Sleep, which hires nurses and health aides to provide in-home care for babies and give new mothers a respite. Founder Denise Stern said some of her caregivers want to work overnight and sleep during the day, but can’t if they have their own children.

Stern has had to turn business away, and so have the owners of seven Let Mommy Sleep franchises around the country. Stern, who works in the Washington, D.C., area, said her revenue is down by half.

Revenue is down 30% at Filter King, based in Miami. Demand for air filters is jumping as people work from home and run their air conditioners more, but the business needs double its staff of 20 to keep up with orders.

“The unemployment benefits continue, and it’s hard to get people off the couch and into the warehouse,” co-owner Mike Jacob said.

Seven Sisters Scones, a bakery and cafe in Johns Creek, Georgia, also has struggled to find staffers, co-owner Hala Haider said.

Because of the shortfall, they can’t make deliveries and have had to turn down new business. But they draw the line at scaling back their online business, which allows them to reach customers across the country.

“That is one thing we don’t compromise on — it’s a priority,” she said.

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