Business

Local restaurants are feeling the labor crunch

PARK CITY, Utah. — “We’re hiring” signs are everywhere in Park City. From hotels to coffee shops, businesses are in desperate need of workers.

“Right now is one hundred times harder than COVID,” said Lorin Smaha of Freshie’s Lobster Co. in Prospector Square. She recently had to close for four days in a row because she didn’t have any staff available to work.

“The economy is just so messed up,” she said. Normally they are open seven days a week,  but she is contemplating lowering that to only five days. Despite increasing her food costs so she can pay higher wages, she’s mostly relying on local high school students. “Everything is kind of headed in this really bad direction. We’ve got high demand on products, which is driving prices up. We’ve got high demand on people. And we have tons of people coming here. It’s just been an extremely difficult few months.”

Pandemic-specific federal unemployment programs ended in Utah on June 26. The enhanced unemployment insurance is set to end in all states on September 4. “With 2.7% unemployment in the state, business restrictions ended and vaccines widely available, it is a natural step in getting back to normal,” reads a Utah government document backing up the decision to cut the benefits early.

“Everyone is short-staffed,” said Katie Babcock, owner of Nosh in Park City. “I think the general consensus right now is everyone’s waiting to see if the end of unemployment turns people out looking for jobs.” Babcock said running a smaller operation has made things easier both through the pandemic and dealing with the current job market. “I can’t imagine being in one of these huge restaurants and being four or five people short-staffed. That would be awful.”

According to a June Morning Consult poll of Americans receiving unemployment benefits, 13% said they receive enough money from insurance to not have to work. The Department of Labor announced this week that unemployment claims hit a pandemic low of 360,000. However, claims are more than double the pre-pandemic average. “Businesses are still having trouble finding people,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in testimony this week to Congress.

Not all businesses have had major issues. Rob Hibl, an owner of Park City Coffee Roasters, said he only lost one employee throughout the entirety of the pandemic. However, he said he did still feel the effects of the labor shortage.

“100% the labor crunch hit us about May, June of this year,” Hibl said. “What it caused us to do as a company, not so much a labor shortage, [but] as a competition for labor because of the wages going up with the economy booming.”

He said they raised their wages to compete for summer seasonal workers, which make up roughly 25% of their workforce.

 

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Despite a lack of workers being the primary problem for local businesses nowadays, there is still a fear of pandemic restrictions in the background.

Hibl and Babcock both voiced their concerns about a COVID-19 resurgence in the winter. “That’s the one thing I worry about, the likelihood of retracting backward and having more restrictions,” Hibl said.

“It’ll be interesting as we go into winter when people are driven back inside, you know, how does that affect restaurants and bars,” Babcock said. “But I mean there’s nothing we can do about it. So we just wait it out and see what happens and be as safe as possible.”

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