U.S. unemployment lowest since March ’20, local restaurants still understaffed

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JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – The U.S. unemployment rate is current 5.4 percent – the lowest since March 2020 in the early days of the pandemic. Many businesses have made gains toward full staffing, but restaurants big and small are struggling to find workers.

Ben Dean is the owner of the Jonesborough Barrel House. Dean was forced to cancel both of the restaurant’s semi-annual low county boils because of staffing issues. The second of those was scheduled for Saturday night.

“The cancellation of it this year is simply to do with the lack of staff and the experience they have,” Dean said.

He said the Barrel House is low on staff in both the kitchen and dining room.

Jim Davis is the owner of 17 McDonald’s franchises in Tennessee and North Carolina. He said each location is down about 10-15 employees.

Davis said that impacts the quality of service at his restaurants.

“The service may slow down just because you don’t have the people power to produce the product or deliver it to our guests,” Davis said.

The restaurant labor market has become highly competitive as restaurants and bars look to fill much-needed positions. That has forced the price of labor up, meaning restaurants are increasing their pay and benefits.

Due to the competitiveness, both Davis and Dean reported receiving more applications, but fewer follow-ups as potential hires found other opportunities.

“People are applying,” Davis said. “Putting them to work is a different story.”

Dean is now paying between $9 and $15 at the Barrel House depending on the position and experience.

He said applications are starting to come in now that Tennessee has suspended the federal emergency unemployment compensation.

“The applications are more frequent and more plentiful,” Dean said. “We’ve been able to resume hiring on a normal basis.”

Davis said McDonald’s’ new pay increase goes up to a maximum of $10 and includes insurance and paid time off benefits, but he has not seen much results.

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