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NC, SC Restaurants Raise Wages, Offer Incentives Amid Worker Shortage

Patrons eat at the Dilworth Neighborhood Grille in September 2020.
Nick de la Canal
People eat at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille in Charlotte in September 2020.

Restaurants across the Carolinas are struggling to find workers even as demand rebounds from a pandemic slowdown. The labor shortage has been persisting despite many restaurants boosting pay and offering financial incentives to potential workers.

In North Carolina, restaurants are down about 70,000 workers — or about 17% of the industry's workforce — compared with before the pandemic, according to the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The association's president, Lynn Minges, said many restaurant workers left the industry after they were laid off during the pandemic. Others have declined to return to work because of health concerns, or because they've been helping children with remote learning.

She said many people have also been receiving expanded unemployment benefits during the pandemic, and in some cases have been receiving more than they were earning at previous jobs.

North Carolina pays a maximum of $350 a week in unemployment benefits to anyone who's out of work through no fault of their own. In addition, the federal government is providing an extra $300 a week on top of the state benefits through Sept. 6, 2021.

Minges said many restaurants have been trying to lure workers with higher wages and other incentives.

"Many of them are offering significant signing bonuses. Many of them are offering health insurance. They're offering flexible schedules. I've seen many of them offering 401ks," she said.

The association has also been in talks with lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper's office about offering other incentives, Minges said, such as a $1,500 bonus for people on unemployment to get back to work.

About 250,000 people in North Carolina are receiving weekly unemployment benefits, according to the state Department of Commerce. The state's workforce system, NCWorks, lists about 206,000 current job openings in the state, though officials say that's an undercount because not all employers use the system.

Restaurants in South Carolina are also facing significant worker shortages, said Bobby Williams, chairman of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Williams also owns several Lizard's Thicket restaurants around the state.

"It is absolutely everybody," Williams said, "All you do is drive down the street and look at every restaurant. I don't care if it's fine dining or fast food — everybody has got incentives, signing bonuses. We even offer daily pay. I mean, anything we can do to get somebody back into working in our restaurant."

He said he supports South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster's decision to end the extra $300 in weekly benefits from the federal government on June 30.

"I know there's some people out there that still are going to need some help, and hopefully there will be something special out there for them," he said, "but we have got to get the workforce back and engaged again."

Both Williams and Minges said without adequate staffing, many restaurants will be hamstrung as demand ramps up going into the summer season.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal