May 24—EAU CLAIRE — As the COVID-19 vaccination rate goes up and people get more comfortable with dining out again, restaurant owners should be celebrating the impending flood of customers.
But instead of ramping up, many restaurants and other businesses are struggling to find enough workers just to keep the doors open.
On a recent Saturday — normally one of the best business days of the week — Silly Serrano had to close early when one of its employees was unable to work.
“We had to close at 6 o’clock. It killed a lot of our dinner hour, but we didn’t have any choice,” said co-owner Sheila Arredondo. “We’re just so short-staffed.”
Similarly, Za51 in Altoona’s River Prairie recently eliminated lunchtime service and stopped opening Sundays and Mondays in response to chronic staff shortages, said owner Joanne Palzkill, who also owns Draganetti’s Ristorante.
On days when employees have needed a day off and there isn’t enough staff to cover, both Italian restaurants have limited their menu to just pizzas, salads and appetizers to make the workload more manageable for those holding down the fort.
The actions were taken even though Palzkill recognizes that demand is rising steadily as the pandemic recedes.
“People are really, really anxious to get back to what was normal life, but we can’t go full bore right now because I don’t have enough people,” Palzkill said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In her role as chairwoman of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Palzkill said she has heard similar stories from restaurants across the state.
With Wisconsin returning to near pre-pandemic unemployment levels — 3.9% in April, the state Department of Workforce Development reported Thursday — the labor shortage has reemerged as one of the biggest challenges facing hospitality businesses and other industries.
The problem has legislative Republicans and business groups urging the state to follow the lead of a number of other states by ending its participation in enhanced federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
The Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Rice Lake chambers of commerce were among 50 chambers across the state that recently sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and lawmakers urging them to end the programs the signers allege contribute to the workforce shortage. The letter asserted that the $300 per week of federal supplemental payments on top of state unemployment benefits have compounded an existing severe labor shortage.
“The result is that businesses are competing against government benefits that incentivize people to stay home,” the chambers wrote.
Democrats, however, maintain that rejecting the federal benefits, which are scheduled to end in September, would harm people who need the money and slow down the state’s economic recovery.
“Wisconsin is well on the road to recovery, but that doesn’t mean we throw down more obstacles that will get in the way of that effort,” state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said in a statement. “Governor Evers’ budget includes a comprehensive plan to support working families and our Wisconsin businesses. It is possible to do both without sacrificing one over the other.”
Representatives of several local businesses said they strongly suspect the additional federal money is a major contributor to their difficulties finding workers, although Scott Rogers, vice president of governmental affairs for the Eau Claire chamber, acknowledged the labor shortage has been the No. 1 business concern in Wisconsin for several years.
“We’ve heard from a lot of employers that it’s very difficult to hire people right now,” Rogers said. “For some employers, this is a crisis. There are hospitality outlets that are not able to open as many hours as they would like to because they can’t find enough people.”
It was a refrain Sheleen Hackbarth, human resources manager for Eau Claire manufacturing plant Culimeta-Saveguard, heard repeatedly at a chamber social event Wednesday night at Phoenix Park.
“Everybody was saying the same thing: ‘We can’t find people.’ It’s a huge problem,” Hackbarth said. “Go to any job fair and people are desperate for workers.”
Culimeta-Saveguard, which employs about 60 people at its Banbury Place plant that produces primarily thermal and acoustic insulation products for the automotive industry, has erected promotional signs, raised wages and offered sign-on and referral bonuses in hopes of recruiting more workers.
“We’ve been forced to increase our wages significantly just to keep our doors open,” Hackbarth said.
Asked how many jobs the plant has available, Hackbarth responded, “If you had 10 good people, I’d take them.”
It has been particularly frustrating to see demand for products rise as the nation comes out of the pandemic only to struggle to find enough workers to fulfill customer orders, she said.
Hackbarth, Arredondo and Palzkill agreed the supplemental federal jobless benefits make it harder to lure people back into the workforce, with Arredondo going so far as to email Evers last week asking him to end the program for Wisconsinites.
Palzkill said a shortage of child care, virtual classes for school-age students and fear by some people of contracting COVID-19 from crowded workplaces are other contributing factors to the labor shortage, which is especially acute for employers seeking unskilled workers.
All three employers described scenarios in which job candidates frequently don’t respond to interview offers, agree to interviews and then don’t show up or even get hired and then fail to report for work.
Looking forward, Rogers said the Chippewa Valley can address the labor shortage by recruiting more people to the area, educating students about local career opportunities, persuading more college students to stay after graduation and pursuing policies that allow more immigrants to stay in the country.
But in the short term, Silly Serrano expected to lose a cook over the weekend, which Arredondo said may force the downtown Mexican restaurant to cut its operating hours.
“We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” said Arredondo, who already has increased wages. “We can only have people work so many hours or they’ll get burned out.”
Ideally, she said, Silly Serrano would add four or five more workers, although she worries she won’t be able to hire anybody until the supplemental benefits expire.
“We survived COVID,” Arredondo said, only to face the daunting challenge of finding enough workers to respond to the pent-up demand for dining out as the pandemic fades. “It’s getting really rough. You just need bodies to help.”