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Restaurant Worker Shortage Deepens In Bloomington-Normal

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Numerous restaurants in Bloomington-Normal have turned to open applications and hiring fairs to address a shortage of workers.

The unemployment rate for the McLean County area labor market may have been 5.1% last month, but it’s a lot lower in certain job sectors. Restaurants, for instance, have had difficulty finding enough people to staff operations.

WGLT first reported on the shortage in February as pandemic restrictions began to ease. It has worsened substantially since then, according to owners and observers.

“I’ve been around the restaurant scene in Bloomington-Normal for a long time and I have not seen the labor shortage we are looking at right now,” said Larry Carius.

Carius headed the food service program at the McLean County Health Department in his working years and in retirement writes about area restaurants on Facebook.

Rob Dob’s Restaurant owner Bob Dobski said his operation is down about 15-20% from a full staff.

Ken Myszka of the Epiphany Farms group of restaurants that also includes Bakery and Pickle, Anju Above, and Harmony Korean Barbecue said his operation has about 100 workers compared to 208 before the pandemic. Myszka said he is short 20-30 people and only operating 60-70% of the hours the eateries would like to be open.

There are several reasons for the continued shortage.

"Every restaurant is opening their dining room at the same time. That means they all need more employees to staff the dining room and kitchen. Everyone is hiring at the same time, which makes the labor shortage even worse," said Carius.

Restaurant sector employees also tend to be among the younger members of the labor pool and until recently may not have had access to vaccines that would make them willing to return out of safety concerns, said Dobski and Carius.

“Now a lot more people will get it and hopefully that is going to loosen things up and make people more comfortable,” said Dobski.

There’s also a possibility the shortage in food service workers may be a longer-term challenge. A lot of people left for other job sectors after mass layoffs and tight operating restrictions from the pandemic and may not return.

“I know one gentleman found work as a painter, who was a cook. Another went to work for a cleaning service for State Farm and decided to change his career. If there wasn’t that consistency, people have bills yet and are raising families, so they have to get regular income,” said Dobski.

Myszka agreed that might be more attractive than coming back to a part-time gig or trying to patch together full-time restaurant sector work among multiple establishments that still have lower-than-normal capacity limits.

“There’s a lot of people in the industry that have given up, or gone to their second job. It’s too inconsistent to guarantee that you are going to have good income, good wages, and good shifts,” said Myska. “We just don’t see an enthusiastic workforce coming back online as we would have seen in the past.”

Dobski even said increased hiring at Rivian, as beneficial to the community as it is, also has helped make truck drivers for liquor distributors and restaurant workers scarce.

Dobski, Myszka, and Carius all cited potential disincentives to work created by government relief efforts as another factor in the shortage.

“I think people are not really caring about full-time work because of the subsidy the government is issuing for unemployment and the virus,” said Dobski.

The effect of the shortage is pressure to raise wages, said the three.

"We see that other jobs have higher starting pay. For example, I think Target is $15 per hour," said Carius.

The minimum wage has risen over the last year and will go from $11/hour to $12/hour in January. Restaurant owners said they will continue to have to bump up pay, though so far it has not increased applications.

“Right now, for kitchen help if you want any consistency you’ve gotta be paying $13-14 per hour for good, experienced grill people and chefs, and that’s what’s driving the shortage,” said Dobski.

There is a break point, added Myszka.

“No, the restaurants have a really hard time hitting that level especially as you onboard a younger staff that has less experience and is less efficient at doing things that are needed. It puts a lot of strain on not only the company but the cost of the product,” said Myszka.

He said until now restaurants have hesitated to raise prices, but foresees that soon may change.

Myszka said Epiphany used to get 12 applications a week. The average is now about four. And those who do apply trend younger. The pre-pandemic workforce average age was 21-24. Myszka said he has seen increases in the proportion of applications from high school students and 17-19-year olds.

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The restaurant worker shortage is so pronounced some companies have begun asking customer for job prospect referrals.

“And I’m not sure if it’s the next generation excited about working with us, just that new crop coming through, or if it has something to do with them being dependents and not receiving the stimulus,” said Myszka.

To compensate, restaurants have turned to unusual methods. Several are holding open interview periods and advertising on social media channels. The Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group has even emailed its customer base highlighting the need and asking for referrals.

The inability to handle demand may get worse for restaurants as more people are vaccinated and return to dining out. Business groups may even inadvertently contribute to that possibility with a campaign centered on restaurant week May 14-23, designed to stimulate that sector of the economy. The McLean County Chamber of Commerce, Bloomington Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau, and The Pantagraph newspaper have created a social media campaign with a variety of promotions and deals to drive people to go out to eat.

Dobski, Carius, and Myszka all said it will be some time before restaurants return to normalcy.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to correct the date of the increase in the minimum wage to January.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.