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Struggles to staff Virginia restaurants spark debate on unemployment: 'Supply is stagnant'

'You have to have somebody who knows what they're doing in the kitchen'
Table dining restaurant eating inside food
Posted at 3:52 PM, Apr 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-01 22:39:06-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Significant staffing shortages are plaguing Central Virginia restaurants as businesses aim to rebound from the economic toll of COVID-19. While business owners struggle to fill open positions, lawmakers and experts are at odds over the root of the issue.

Help is wanted at Richmond's Eat 66 Diner. Owner Brad Smallwood is searching for talented cooks and servers to join his team.

"You have to have somebody who knows what they're doing in the kitchen," Smallwood said.

But getting those workers into the kitchen of his Forest Hill restaurant proves to be an ongoing battle.

"I think a lot of people left the industry when the restaurants were closed down for three to four months," Smallwood said. "They went elsewhere to find other jobs because the industry was not open. A lot of those people have not come back."

Smallwood's staffing conundrum comes at a time when he should be expanding business.

"Demand is very, very high, and the supply is stagnant and doesn't seem to be increasing," Smallwood said.

Coronavirus restrictions are relaxed in Virginia, vaccination rates are improving, and people want to go out. Meanwhile, Eat 66 is facing delays and detours.

"We were in a position where we had to shut down on some afternoons because we couldn't handle the prepping and the service and the cooking," Smallwood explained. "We are now closed on Mondays."

Similar trends are being seen at other restaurants across the state and country. So where are the workers?

"If they can make more money by staying on unemployment than they can coming back to work, for them, it's a simple math problem," said Republican Congressman Rob Wittman, who serves Virginia's 1st district.

He partly blames the extra $300 in federal unemployment benefits included in President Joe Biden's COVID-19 Relief bill.

"We do not want to create a disincentive for people to come back to work," Rep. Wittman said.

Instead, he supports a one-time back-to-work bonus. He called it an "incentive to get folks back to work with the understanding that many of these other elements are beginning to expire."

Across the aisle, Democratic Congressman Donald McEachin, who serves Virginia's 4th district, said the solution begins with transformation within the restaurant industry.

"If you're not paying them more than the small amount of money we're paying in enhanced benefits, that says something about the business model you're currently using," said Rep. McEachin.

He encourages restaurant owners to increase hourly wages.

"The pay is very low, and they basically live off of tips," McEachin said. "You can't expect people to continue to do that. There are going to be some marvelous job opportunities as we begin to reinvent this economy."

However, Rep. Wittman said many restaurant owners have already "significantly increased their wages to be competitive with other similarly skilled jobs" for the back of house staff. He added wait staff typically make much more than the minimum wage from tips.

Dr. Elise Harper-Anderson, a professor at VCU who researches workforce development, says current staffing shortages are happening for a variety of reasons, including ones mentioned by both lawmakers.

"I think at the heart of it is economic and financial well-being," said Harper-Anderson.

She said those other factors include lingering COVID-19 risks, the fact that many workers have pivoted to other ways to make money, childcare, schooling and the wait to get fully vaccinated.

To McEachin's point, Harper-Anderson said some people want more job security in the restaurant industry and don't want to rely on tips.

"They don't know whether the customer demand is going to continue to rise," Harper-Anderson said.

And to Wittman's point, she said there is somewhat of a correlation between enhancing unemployment benefits and the incentive to return to work. However, she said the issue runs deeper than that.

"People are very afraid to step out there and not be able to get back on unemployment if something happens," said Harper-Anderson. "That speaks to the Virginia employment system."

She called it a broken system.

"If you answer one question wrong, or check one wrong box, you go into the black box of people who never get their phone calls answered, never get their payment," Harper-Anderson said. "And it creates a situation where people are just staying put in place."

Harper-Anderson also mentioned the need to revamp Virginia's unemployment system, which was the subject of a recent CBS 6 Problem Solvers Investigation.

"We knew that the platform being used to process unemployment payments was very old and antiquated," Harper-Anderson explained. "It was an issue from the beginning, but it's only gotten worse."

She believes progress begins with meeting the needs of the worker.

"To feel a sense of well-being and to feel secure," Harper-Anderson explained. "And when they feel that, they will happily go to work and then we can work on fixing the other system."