Restaurant industry facing worker shortage as business comes back

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 5:03 PM CDT
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NEENAH, Wis. (WBAY) - Restaurants lost a lot of business last year due to the pandemic. But now, as things are looking up, a new problem is plaguing the industry.

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, with many having to take extreme measures to stay afloat. “We had to lay off team members, and that was just a real tough decision because we know how much it impacted them, their families, their loved ones, their lives,” said Ryan Batley.

Batley is the general manager of Best Western Premier Bridgewood Resort Hotel in Neenah, which includes a Ground Round restaurant.

Now, with vaccinations up and summer weather on the way, business is coming back to restaurants. It makes Batley hopeful, but it does create a new industry issue.

“You had all these layoffs. Now there’s all these open jobs, so we’re all competing for the same market in the same pool,” said Batley.

“The help wanted signs are out everywhere,” said Wisconsin Restaurant Association president and CEO Kristine Hillmer.

Hillmer says there’s a lot playing into the workforce shortage.

“It’s very complicated. It’s not a one-size fits all, it’s not a one-solution, but it’s all these things coming together that’s making staffing such an issue for our operators,” said Hillmer.

Part of it is some of those who were laid off found jobs in other industries. Another issue is the extra unemployment benefits currently at play.

“There are jobs available, and that extra $300 is keeping people on the sideline,” said Hillmer.

“We need to get people the financial support out there, but we also need people to get back into the workforce once it’s safe and once it’s ready,” said Batley.

Hillmer says with summer staff in particular there’s a more specific issue.

“The other element to this is the whole national immigration debate is going on and J-1 visas can’t come in and H-1B visas are really restricted. So the normal backfill for summer help that comes from folks coming all over the world to experience the United States and have a job and do all of that stuff, that’s severely hampered,” said Hillmer. “So all of those things make a perfect storm to an already bad situation for restaurants.”

The Ground Round has added incentives to entice applicants, like a $20 gift card after an interview, hired or not, and a hiring bonus of $150 after 90 days of work.

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Posted by Ground Round, Neenah on Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Hillmer believes if the worker shortage persists restaurants could once again find themselves making tough choices.

“If they can’t find the help, we’re going to see a lot of businesses are going to have to have reduced capacity or reduced hours in some way shape or form to manage it all,” Hillmer. “My big caution honestly is the worker shortage and finding people to work. That’s my biggest hesitancy to say ‘We’re going to have a banner summer.’”

But, she and Batley are cautiously optimistic.

“Everyone’s looking at hiring, so if you’re interested in this industry now is the time to be looking,” said Batley.

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