by: Jonathan Simmons and Jarleene Almenas
The Peach Valley Cafe West location in Ormond Beach didn’t lose many workers during the pandemic. But when the cafe did have vacancies, General Manager Brad Disch noticed something unusual: People would apply for a job, but would always seem to have an excuse for why they couldn’t make it to the in-person interview.
He’s experienced at least 12 no-shows a week in the past couple of months when conducting new employee interviews.
Regardless, the positions have to be filled, and one can’t get so discouraged as to stop trying all together, he said.
“It just takes time and effort, and obviously it’s frustrating when people don’t show,” Disch said. “We try to do the best to try to create a safe, clean working environment so that people want to work with us.”
Employers across the country have noticed that it’s getting harder to find staff. Many blame it on the unusually generous unemployment benefits the federal government has implemented in reaction to the pandemic.
When people are getting about as much money for staying home as they’d be able to make in the available jobs, some employers say, some workers will opt to do so — especially when working puts them and their family at heightened risk of getting COVID-19.
"We are doing everything possible to sustain our businesses, but it's time we stop competing with our government for who people are getting their paychecks from."
— JOHN LULGJURAJ and SCOTT FOX, presidnet and vice president, Flagler Beach Business Bureau
In the past, the state Department of Economic Opportunity would call employers to verify that individuals on unemployment had actually followed through with job applications.
But Disch said he hasn’t received a call like that “in years.”
Flagler County Commissioner Donald O’Brien said his clients have had a difficult time attracting employees.
“There’s a lot of incentive to stay home at this point, and people respond to incentives,” O’Brien said. “We talk about $15-an-hour minimum wage — it’s definitely happening now, because of the need to have to pay that to get people to show up.”
CareerSource Flagler Volusia President and CEO Robin King suggested other factors may be causing or contributing to the no-show phenomenon.
Of the 85,963 people who filed unemployment claims in the Flagler-Volusia area since March 2020, only about 12% are still receiving unemployment, she said.
With so many positions open, it’s possible that job seekers are quickly finding jobs and not bothering to cancel other interviews they’d set before finding work, she said.
“Prior to COVID, when we would hold business focus groups, the number one skillset that the businesses are in need of are those soft skills,” she said, “that they show up on time, keep their appointments.”
Large employers who have recently moved to the area — Amazon and the Buc-ee’s convenience store chain among them — might also be drawing many applicants who’d otherwise be taking restaurant and hospitality jobs, she said.
About 46% of Volusia and Flagler residents who worked in accommodations and food service lost their jobs in April 2020, and some likely used their time away from work to retrain for more lucrative positions, including health care ones, King said.
“If you’re in hospitality, you have the customer service skills,” King said.
'COMPETING WITH THE GOVERNMENT'
Restaurants — especially small, local ones — often operate with a relatively narrow profit margin, vulnerable to sudden changes.
"We have to figure out a way to get people to want to work again."
— BRAD DISCH, general manager, Peach Valley Cafe West
It’s not easy to just increase wages to attract more people, said John Lulgjuraj, owner-operator at Oceanside Beach Bar & Grill in Flagler Beach and president of the Flagler Beach Business Bureau.
Lulgjaraj is short by abut 20 or 25 staff members: He has about 65 and would like to have closer to 90.
But, like Disch, he’s getting lots of no-shows.
He’ll schedule managers to come in and conduct interviews. But, he said, “we’re sitting there waiting, waiting, and the majority of the day is just sitting around waiting for people who never show up.”
“It’s such as waste of time and money,” he added.
With Flagler Beach Business Bureau Vice President Scott Fox, owner at the Tortugas’ Florida Kitchen and Bar, Lulgjuraj wrote a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, asking the governor to “turn the state unemployment benefit into an EMPLOYMENT benefit” that pays people who are working.
“As business owners we understand our obligations, we know how to compete with and against each other, we compete with the weather and hurricanes but NEVER had to compete with our government,” the letter states. “... We are all short staffed; out of 100 applications we may have received the last month, a handful show up to their interview. We found out that people that are receiving unemployment ‘must be actively searching for work’. We are being played.”
Lulgjuraj said he gets why people may want to stay home.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “I can’t blame Americans for saying safe and not wanting to work. But also, I know that if the government wasn’t stimulating them, we wouldn’t have as big of a problem.”
If things don’t change and Lulgjuraj has to further increase staff pay, that would be hard to do without also raising prices of items on the menu. But that comes with its own costs, as the menus would have to be redesigned and reprinted.
So, what can be done?
For Disch, it’s been continuing to advertising job postings on social media and sites like Craigslist until one or two new employees follow through, he said.
“Now, we have to figure out a way to get people to want to work again,” Disch said.
‘GET MORE PEOPLE TRAINED'
Public-facing positions in the restaurant and tourism industries aren’t the only ones seeing a dearth of applicants.
For the local manufacturing sector, a shortage of a skilled labor workforce isn’t a new problem. That’s been ongoing for a long time, said Jayne Fifer, president and CEO of the Volusia Manufacturers Association.
“We really thought that the COVID (pandemic) was going to help us, from this perspective: That so many people were disrupted in the tourism industry,” Fifer said. “We thought, ‘Boy, if we can capture them, and make them aware of what’s available in manufacturing, that maybe we could at least fix the pipeline a little bit.’ And we’re not seeing it.”
One of the roles of VMA is to build awareness of local manufacturers, of which Volusia and Flagler counties have over 450, said Fifer, all in diverse industries including boating, medical, food, and engineering. With an average wage of $58,000, Fifer said VMA is constantly working to inform the public that manufacturing is a viable career path, oftentimes with entry level wages starting at $15 an hour.
Recently, an advanced manufacturing technician training program was made available in the community, a “learn while you earn” opportunity that sponsors students to work at local companies while attending Daytona State College. It guarantees those who finish the two-year program an associate’s degree and a job.
It’s programs like this that the VMA advocates for.
“Get more people trained,” Fifer said. “Get more people in the jobs that we have.”
She has heard of people declining to return to work after being on unemployment, but she questions whether these individuals are thinking long term.
In that same vein, she also doesn’t know why the furloughs in industries harder hit by the pandemic didn’t motivate individuals to seek jobs in manufacturing.
“If somebody could come up with that answer then we could solve it,” Fifer said. “I have no idea. Where were they? They’re talking about hundreds of people out of work.”