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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Restaurants and hotels face staff shortages, small applicant pool

The ongoing issue has escalated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

When Gainesville’s SpringHill Suites by Marriott reopened job applications at the beginning of the year – only about 15 people applied and three were hired but quickly quit. They applied, went through the interview process and then didn’t show up for work.

Rebecca Lamb, sales director at the hotel off Archer Road, said some new employees would come in for their first day on the job and then quit in the middle of their shift.

“It's like a revolving door,” she said.

Other Gainesville businesses, like restaurants, are facing the same problem. Small business owners are struggling to bring back former employees, and others face small applicant pools of mostly inexperienced workers. The shortages come as COVID-19 vaccines enable Americans to return to public spaces — only to find them understaffed. 

Some owners point to COVID-19 unemployment benefits to explain the lack of applicants, while others blame low wages and mistreatment from customers. The labor shortage has become a statewide issue as pandemic restrictions are slowly lifted and restaurants try to regain their footing after a challenging year. 

Last April, Lamb had to furlough about 20 of the hotel’s original 29 employees. She said the remaining staff — about four managers, along with desk clerks and housekeepers — worked to keep the property running amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The managers, working on a 30% pay cut, had to take on extra shifts to fill in for missing staff. 

About a year later, the staffing gaps remain. The hotel asked its furloughed employees to return at the start of 2021, and only a breakfast hostess came back, Lamb said.

“People just don’t want to work,” she said. 

Lamb worries  stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, such as weekly checks of up to $275, are discouraging some people from returning to work. As of April 4, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity received more than 6.5 million claims for reemployment assistance since last March. 

Lamb expects staffing shortages to continue as long as people receive financial assistance from the government. 

With fewer customers, the worker shortage didn’t create too much pressure in the first few months of the pandemic, she said. However, it’s been more difficult to operate since business increased in March. 

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“All of us feel exhausted and frustrated because we’re having to pick up the slack,” she said. 

Restaurant owners feel the staff shortages are an ongoing issue worsened by the pandemic.

Danny Hughes, an owner of Loosey’s Downtown in Gainesville, and Headwaters in High Springs, said he has worked in the restaurant business since 2000 and watched the number of workers in the industry dwindle over the years. He said it’s hard to get new people to work – especially people with experience. 

“I think we really noticed for the first time about three or four years ago,” he said about the shortage of workers. “We didn’t necessarily get mobbed with applications when we put an ad for help.”

To Hughes, a lot of people seem tired of working in the service industry due to low wages and harsh treatment from customers. He said some restaurants had patrons who lashed out about inconveniences they experienced due to short staff or limited hours. 

Working in a restaurant is often viewed as unskilled, uneducated labor, he said. City and county residents often post their poor experiences at restaurants on Facebook food review groups. He has seen people encourage them in the comments to reach out to corporate immediately.

“We all make mistakes on occasion, and those are often easily fixable,” he said. “But the reactions to those have become more and more aggressive, and I think it’s just making people not want to do it anymore.”

Hughes believes raising the minimum wage — even if the increase isn’t to $15 or $20 an hour — can combat the lack of workers. There’s a possibility people are staying home on unemployment benefits because they’re making more than they would from minimum wage, he said. 

“It’s gotten to a point that I’ve been hiring in both of my restaurants for going on nine months,” he said. “There’s no end in sight.”

Atticus Steinmetz, economic development manager for Gainesville’s Chamber of Commerce, an organization that facilitates economic opportunity and prosperity, echoed Hughes’ belief.

Steinmetz said low wages have been an issue for more than a decade in the U.S. He believes this is due to a skills gap, which is when workers’ skills do not line up with those needed for a particular job. This gap can lead to underemployment because businesses don’t want to hire inexperienced workers, which in turn creates a slow growth in wages, he said. 

Before the pandemic, unemployment in the United States reached record lows, yet wages did not increase. As soon as researchers like Steinmetz began to explore this dilemma, the pandemic arrived and unemployment skyrocketed, he said.

Steinmetz’s research showed a drop in employment within the leisure and hospitality industry in March and April 2020 along with a decrease in the hourly wage for this industry. However, his data indicated that even in the months before the pandemic began, the hourly wage was steadily declining. 

The pandemic didn’t create the problem of stifled wages, but staff shortages and unskilled workers brought attention to the issue, he said. 

“It’s been a huge problem, but it’s probably coming to a head,” he said.

Contact Lucille Lannigan at llannigan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucilleLannigan.

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Lucille Lannigan

Lucy Lannigan is a second-year journalism student from Key West. She works as a news assistant on the metro team. When Lucy’s not reporting, she loves to paint and spend time outside. 


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