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NC Business Owners Get Creative To Recruit Staff Amid Worker Shortage

42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh On June 22, 2021.
Laura Pellicer
General manager Hunter Correll stands outside 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh on June 22, 2021. Correll is testing out new methods to attract and retain employees as the state faces significant worker shortages.

If you’re interested in waiting tables, washing dishes, or shucking oysters — 42nd Street Oyster Bar In Raleigh wants to hear from you. Like so many other restaurants, bars, and hospitality businesses in the Triangle, this popular spot with North Carolina lawmakers, has a slew of open positions including hosts, bussers and cooks.

"We're trying to persevere and hopefully, with patience, we can get the right people in here on our staff and get back to a little normalcy."
Hunter Correll

"We're trying to persevere and hopefully, with patience, we can get the right people in here on our staff and get back to a little normalcy," said 42nd Street Oyster Bar General Manager Hunter Correll minutes after stepping out of an interview with a prospective employee.

North Carolina’s hospitality industry is facing significant worker shortages. And it’s prompting some businesses in the Triangle and elsewhere to find creative ways to attract and maintain staff.

At 42nd Street, that means turning to social media and the restaurant's email list to broadcast those open positions. It also means testing out new financial incentives. The restaurant has instituted a signing bonus for new employees and a referral bonus — customers who refer a new employee receive a $100 gift card.

The business also offers some paid vacation after a year and access to a retirement account, not standard practice in the restaurant industry.

Laura Pellicer
Alonzo Goggins II from Denver Colorado indulges in freshly shucked oysters at 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh on June 22, 2021. Amid the hospitality worker shortage, the restaurant is looking to hire shuckers, bussers, hosts, servers, cooks and dishwashers.

Despite the creative fixes, securing staff to fill open hospitality positions remains a daunting task. North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association President Lynn Minges heads the member-based industry group that represents the interests of more than 20,000 restaurants, hotels and bars across North Carolina. When lockdown ended, she said businesses were faced with a new challenge.

"We suddenly found that we had yet one more crisis looming, and that is that we couldn't find workers to fill the many jobs that exist in our industry today," she said.

Her industry isn’t the only one experiencing shortages. According to the latest figures from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, transportation, material moving, and administrative support jobs also have plenty of empty positions to fill.

"But I think the hospitality industry is feeling it in a disproportionate way," said Minges. "Largely because we saw such significant job loss in a very short period of time, because we are trying to rebound and rehire in a very short period of time."

Laura Pellicer
Front-of-house staff gather near a work station at 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh on June 22, 2021. The establishment has instituted a paid referral program, among other initiatives, to try to attract staff.

Minges said that of the 522,000 workers in the hospitality industry in North Carolina, nearly half were displaced from their jobs during the pandemic. The industry is still down approximately 70,000 in the state or about 15% of the industry's workforce, according to the latest May figures available from the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

In Raleigh, the President of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau Dennis Edwards is tracking that shortage. In recent months, the leisure and hospitality industry in the city was still down approximately 20% for full-time employees and about 30% for part-time, compared with pre-COVID numbers, according to Edwards.

"Demand is back to levels where [businesses] want to bring nearly all their staff back if they can, but it is extremely hard to find anyone that wants to work in the hospitality and leisure market right now," he said.

"Many of those workers went on to find jobs in other sectors. So we're having to replace the workforce, not just call people back to work."
Lynn Minges, President and CEO at NC Restaurant and Lodging Association

On top of that, many restaurants in Raleigh are being flooded with eager customers. The visitor's bureau said that in May, Raleigh had its best month ever, according to food and beverage tax collections. The numbers point to an onslaught of customers ready to dine in, or customers attracted by the return of local sporting events, and even a few leisure travelers.

What's Behind The Shortage

Minges said the hospitality worker shortage is the product of many overlapping factors.

"Many of those workers went on to find jobs in other sectors. So we're having to replace the workforce, not just call people back to work. So that's one of the problems we're facing," she said. "I think a second factor is the federal stimulus and the unemployment benefits have allowed people to continue to be able to stay at home."

That federal pandemic unemployment benefit is a $300 per week payment for displaced workers derived from federal COVID relief funds. The benefit is set to expire at the beginning of September. Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed legislation that would have ended it early, saying the payment helps inject money into the economy.

Despite her frustration with the impact of those benefits, Minges said the payments have been helpful for many people, including those with health issues.

Restaurant manager Hunter Correll said he sees the unemployment package as a direct impediment to hiring staff.

"When you can make more money than you were making previously at your job to sit at home, there's really no motivation to go to work," he said.

Courtesy Of Cheetie Kumar
Chef and Co-Owner Cheetie Kumar stands outside Garland Restaurant in Raleigh. She has also been grappling with the staff shortage.

Attracting Staff For The Long-Haul

A few minutes drive from 42nd Street Oyster bar, Garland Restaurant Chef and Co-Owner Cheetie Kumar has also been grappling with the staff shortage.

In September, she took a significant step and pivoted to a new pay scale, including boosting the base wage for servers to $8 per hour. Still, she feels the pandemic has highlighted deep inequities in the service industry, and attracting staff full-time means working toward big, long-term changes.

"If this industry is going to survive, it's going to have to have a robust worker pool," said Kumar, citing the allure of companies like Amazon that offer higher starting salaries and benefits not often available to restaurant workers.

Walking Away From Precarious Work

It would take more than a bonus to attract Carrboro resident Keenan Nessl back to the hospitality industry. In the lead-up to the pandemic, she worked a range of jobs including as a barista, as a kitchen worker, and in a bakery. During the pandemic, she managed 'to the woods,' a Chapel Hill salon. She says working during that time felt like being in "a state of danger."

Today Nessl works from home as a life insurance underwriter, a job she says she appreciates for the benefits and autonomy. She disagrees with the notion that unemployment benefits are discouraging workers from returning to the industry.

"The lack of benefits, it's not sustainable for a single person, and it's not sustainable for a person with a family."
Keenan Nessl, Carrboro Resident

"I think to say that insinuates that folks are lazy, which if you've ever worked in the service industry, you're not a lazy individual," said Nessl. "I think that people are waiting for it to be safe for them to go back to work if they are collecting unemployment, or it's possible that they are not in a place where they have those opportunities."

As for herself, Nessl has no immediate plans to return to the hospitality industry.

"I will never go back to a job where I'm making $2.13 an hour and I am at the whim of someone's emotions, and my ability to get a paycheck," she said. "And the lack of benefits, it's not sustainable for a single person, and it's not sustainable for a person with a family,"

Federal unemployment benefits end in a couple of months. In the meantime, business owners will have to continue finding creative ways to serve the onslaught of customers eager to rediscover their cities' offerings.

Kumar reminds restaurant-goers that this transitional period comes with challenges for staff.

"Believe me, we don't want to be in this position. We've gone through hell, and a lot of us have almost lost our livelihoods and more," she said. "So be kind, it's not just about you, we're all in this together. And try not to leave, like, nasty feedback. We're dealing with a lot."
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Laura Pellicer is a producer with The State of Things (hyperlink), a show that explores North Carolina through conversation. Laura was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, a city she considers arrestingly beautiful, if not a little dysfunctional. She worked as a researcher for CBC Montreal and also contributed to their programming as an investigative journalist, social media reporter, and special projects planner. Her work has been nominated for two Canadian RTDNA Awards. Laura loves looking into how cities work, pursuing stories about indigenous rights, and finding fresh voices to share with listeners. Laura is enamored with her new home in North Carolina—notably the lush forests, and the waves where she plans on moonlighting as a mediocre surfer.