Struggle to find employees worse now than before pandemic

(The Center Square) – Businesses might have struggled to find employees before the COVID-19 pandemic as unemployment was at record-low levels in early 2020. But as Missouri and the rest of the nation begin to more fully open restaurants and other venues, some businesses are severely hampered by a shortage of workers.

“It is even more difficult now for businesses than it was before the start of the pandemic,” said Karen Buschmann, vice president of marketing and communications for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. “We had an incredibly low employment rate before the pandemic. But we are hearing about many difficulties our members are having when trying to find workers.”

Unemployment demographic data published on the Missouri Department of Labor & Industrial Relations website showed 5,627 people in the accommodation and food services industry weren’t working in March. In the specific occupation of food preparation and serving, 4,364 were unemployed.

The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center reported restaurants and other eating places had the second largest number of online job postings in March with 2,496. The largest numbers were in St. Louis (1,170) and Kansas City (641).

The pay of many employees in the restaurant and hospitality industry is supplemented by tips. However, the capacity to earn tips is reduced by restrictions on restaurant occupancy.

Food service employees working in educational institutions, health care, senior living and other sectors don’t receive tips.

“Long-term care is having all of those challenges, especially since the pandemic hit,” said Keith Sappington, executive director of the Missouri Assisted Living Association. “Many are having a terrible time getting staffing levels to where they need to be.”

Several factors prohibit some senior living facilities from paying wages equivalent to food service workers in other sectors. Plus, pay is limited by budgets controlled by Medicaid reimbursements. However, employee wages are comparable to those working in facilities where residents pay for most of their care. Competition in the senior living market prevents those facilities from raising fees enough to significantly increase payroll budgets.

“It’s hard to compete with some corporations like McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A where they might pay $18 to $20 an hour,” Sappington said. “Our members are on such a tight budget, they can’t afford to pay that wage. You can’t cut back on services. So it’s a challenge to find people who actually want to work and do this type of work.”

Like most businesses, skilled nursing facilities actively recruit applicants through a variety of advertising methods. But the hiring process often becomes frustrating for many managers.

“So many times, our members won’t get any applications to even call someone in for an interview,” Sappington said. “Sometimes, they don’t show up for the scheduled interview. I can’t say for sure why that happens, but people might realize they don’t want to work in long-term care because of Covid.”

Others have said that enhanced unemployment benefits from the federal government have disincentivized people from returning to work.

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