“It’s ‘pandemic round two’ for us because this is something that we didn’t see coming’: Tri-Cities restaurants struggle to find employees

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) — As more people get vaccinated and restrictions are eased, the restaurant industry seems poised for a comeback, but many are facing a major bottleneck: finding workers.

“It’s been the toughest environment that I’ve worked in forty years and the biggest concern that I have is my people that are on the frontlines,” said Jim Davis, who owns 17 Mcdonald’s across the Tri-Cities and western North Carolina. “Business is great today but the consumer will only allow you to not service them in a way they come to expect for a period of time.”

Davis is looking to hire at least 300 workers to catch up and meet current demand. The biggest challenge: finding people who are interested.

“On a given week, we may schedule 30 interviews and I hate to say it but it’s about a 50% show rate when it’s time for the actual interview,” said Davis. “We’ve increased starting wages, we’ve added paid time off — vacation, free meals, free uniforms, we offer insurance. There are so many things we’re doing just to try to recruit and most importantly retain our existing employees.”

In the evenings, Delta Blues in Bristol is normally buzzing with a dinner rush, but on Monday night, the dining room was closed for the first time on a weeknight in a while because of being short-staffed.

“We’ll schedule say 20 interviews in a day and two people might show up. It’s our understanding that with the stimulus and the unemployment that people would just rather stay home right now,” said owner Travis Penn. “The current employees we have are working crazy hours, working overtime and now we’re cutting our hours back just to give them a break.”

The director of Workforce Development for the First Tennessee Development District says she thinks a shift will come when restaurants can operate at full capacity.

“If the restaurant is at 50% capacity and I’m used to making a lot of money for tips because I’m really good at my job and that’s what I would choose to do but there’s no way that my restaurant can have enough traffic for me to be able to make the money that I’m used to making then right now, it’s just pure economics,” said Lottie Ryans. “As restaurants can fully reopen and people can see that their paycheck can come back to normal with tips and things, I think we will see some shift there.”

Ryans also says a lack of childcare options could be the reason why people aren’t applying.

“Childcare was an issue pre-pandemic. We don’t have enough seats in our region…and many places across the country don’t. With the pandemic, there have been childcare centers who have closed,” said Ryans. “There are childcare centers who are working at less than full capacity so if you think about that, I may not be able to go back to work because of the cost of childcare and the availability of childcare. So, it may be that I’m keeping my family intact and maybe we’re still even doing school from home.”

Even with job fairs, restaurant owners aren’t sure the end is in sight, just hoping that even a few of their openings can be filled to provide some relief.

“I’ve been calling it personally around here ‘pandemic round two’ for us because this is something that we didn’t see coming,” said Penn. “In the end we knew [closing] was the right thing to do to take care of our people. I know a lot of restaurants…it’s all about the bottom dollar but at the same time we’ve got to take care of our people because without them, we couldn’t do this.”

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