Labor shortage rocks industries

Pictured is a recent job fair at an area Schnucks grocery store location. 

The cross-industry labor shortage is continuing to impact businesses both in Monroe County and across the nation. 

Many have resorted to cutting hours. This is a decision Ray Boccardi, owner of Joe Boccardi’s Ristorante in Columbia, has faced not just once, but twice during the pandemic. 

“We’ve been here for 29 years and we have never had issues like we are having right now,” Boccardi said about the labor shortage. “It seems like for whatever reason, people are not wanting to get into the workforce and so it’s making it difficult for us small businesses to get by with a thin staff. What makes it difficult and frustrating (is) we have the business, we just don’t have the staffing to accommodate the business.” 

Boccardi decided to close his restaurant on Sundays in addition to Mondays approximately a month ago. Labor Day marked the beginning of the Monday closures. 

Fortunately, Boccardi said the decrease in costs from closing two days a week helps make up for decreased sales opportunity. 

He said he is still trying to cut costs when possible, though. 

“(I’m) trying to cut back on some of the things we don’t necessarily have to have, whether it be certain alcohol, spirits or maybe some food items that we don’t sell a lot of,” Boccardi said. 

Many Schnucks locations across the four states it serves – Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin – are now closing an hour earlier than normal. However, select locations will continue normal operating hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., nine of which are in the St. Louis area. 

Schnucks spokesperson Paul Simon said this is a result of the labor shortage and customer shopping patterns. 

“It’s all about customer traffic,” Simon said. “(With) those nine stores that we listed, we still see quite a bit of customer traffic between the 9 and 10 p.m. hours. Whereas with our other stores we have noticed that customer traffic, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, has decreased significantly in that hour.

Kit Timmons of Columbia is president and owner of First Class Workforce Solutions, a staffing agency that serves clients in St. Louis, Chicago, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. He explained First Class mainly helps staff full-time food service and housekeeping positions in hospitals, schools, universities and sports/entertainment venues. 

Timmons said he has seen many cafeterias at schools and hospitals limit operating hours and options when possible. For example, a university might have multiple cafeterias across different buildings, but only some may be open. 

Yet, hospital food service cannot completely cut hours of operation. 

“You can stop the cafeteria because you don’t have guests, but you still have to feed the patients and feed the doctors,” Timmons said. “Those are necessary things that have to happen.” 

Hospital environmental services departments, which consist of those responsible for cleaning and housekeeping, cannot trim hours.

“They have to make sure they have people that clean the rooms and change the rooms as people check out and get ready for new people coming in,” Timmons said. 

In fact, EVS workers are seeing a need for even more manpower in the midst of the labor crisis.

“For companies that run the EVS departments, it’s been necessary to increase (department sizes) because they have more cleaning to do because of the pandemic,” Timmons said. “A lot of those same companies get tasked with putting people at the entrance (to) take temperatures, and now it’s making sure that people who come in haven’t had COVID exposure. These companies have had more needs because the pandemic has changed the landscape of their work.” 

Countless articles recommend that struggling businesses let their employees work from home in hopes of drawing more applicants with the promise of a flexible schedule. 

This is impossible for many genres of work, including food service and hospitality. 

“The businesses which we support, the stuff that we do, is not remote work,” Timmons said. “You’re never going to have remote work for people to make food for those in a hospital.” 

This leaves these industries trying to find other ways to incentivize workers, the most common posed solution being better baseline pay.

“Early in the year, we noticed that it was easier for us to find new hires and people interested in working in the markets that had already increased the minimum wage. We operate in Chicago and D.C., (which) are both near $15 in minimum wage already or were earlier this year, and it was easier in those markets to get people to talk about work,” Timmons said.

After observing this, First Class began encouraging their Midwestern clients to follow suit and eventually, they did.

Timmons said it is hard to see what – if any – impact increased minimum wage has on employment interest in this region as many employers started mandating vaccines at the same time wages increased. 

“We even offer an incentive bonus to individuals that are vaccinated or need to get vaccinated to try to take at least some of the sting out of it,” Timmons said. 

As of Oct. 11, some Schnucks employees are reaping the benefits of a company-wide wage increase, including current and future store, bakery, plant and floral design workers. This excludes baggers. 

Previously, Schnucks announced a performance and retention bonus based on hours worked. Those eligible could receive up to $600 paying out in January 2022. 

Oak Hill Senior Living & Rehabilitation Center in Waterloo is currently offering sign-on bonuses to new hires, plus hourly bonuses for current employees who pick up extra shifts. They have licensed nurses, certified nursing aides, dietary aides, cook and housekeeper vacancies. 

“These efforts have been received with limited success,” Oak Hill Interim Administrator Kim Keckritz said. 

Keckritz said in addition to direct monetary incentives, Oak Hill also provides ways to build one’s skills for a fulfilling career. 

“We are also offering certified nursing aide classes to anyone wanting to start a nursing career,” she said. “We have experienced CNA instructors who teach the classes and we offer on-the-job experience to provide the best environment for learning.” 

Yet, as Timmons pointed out, offering such incentives is not feasible, or applicable, for many small businesses. 

He said this is the case for many local restaurants. 

“They at least want to try to increase the pay rate to make it attractive and get people in there (to work), but they can’t do that without it being passed on to the customer, which means higher costs after they’re already battling increased food costs and supply chain issues anyway,” Timmons said. “These local establishments are really in a pickle. I think they feel it’s more fair for them to say, ‘We can’t be open as many days to still be able to offer you the same prices and the same service’ than it is to say, ‘The only way we can be open (our full hours) is to double the cost.’” 

Boccardi said his restaurant has been offering starting pay at a higher rate than they offered pre-pandemic, however, other incentives are simply not possible. 

Those interested in working at any of the companies or businesses mentioned are encouraged to apply. 

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