With Spotty Application Filing, Some Local Businesses Are Coming Up Short Of Workers
By Brad Goins
Given the number of locals who’ve spent months staying at home during the COVID-19 quarantine, we’d expect to see at least a fairly significant shortage of employees in certain businesses in the area. Lagniappe found that while there are some problems with employee shortages, the problem is by no means universal in Southwest Louisiana.
Some of the busiest restaurants in town seem to be getting by just fine. An employee at the Popeye’s on Prien Lake Road told me that the operation has “a full staff.” And she emphasized “we’re always hiring.” At the Burger King on Martin Luther King Highway, I was told that the restaurant now has a backlog of almost 100 job applications.
And at 121 Artisan Bistro, a staff member told me the business had a full crew. She was also quick to add, “We are hiring.”
The Other Side
But things are very different at other busy restaurants. When I asked a worker at Casa Mañana if the situation of having a hard time finding workers applied where she worked, she answered, “I think it applies everywhere.”
A worker at Pitt Grill on Prien Lake Road also said the shortage of employees was a real problem.
She noted the shortage existed mainly among the servers. She felt one reason workers weren’t coming in was the relatively large unemployment payments they were collecting at home.
But another reason, she said, might be that with the number of servers reduced, those who do come back have less revenue to look forward to.
The fewer the servers there are, the fewer the number of tables they get. Fewer tables means fewer tips.
Perhaps the most striking case of a local restaurant that isn’t getting enough employees is Darrell’s.
For weeks, the restaurant has been persistently advertising for workers. “We’re barely getting applications,” says general manager Tyler Benoit.
“We may not get an application in three weeks.”
He says he recently gave the kitchen manager a batch of 12 online applications. When the people who filled them out were contacted, only one of the 12 applicants said they were interested in work, and even that one was “a maybe.”
“I’ve never been this short-handed in 12 years,” says Benoit.
When the COVID-19 quarantine began, the first wave of lost employees at Darrell’s came from parents with young children who suddenly needed to have day care. Darrell’s lost six to seven employees in the first week of the quarantine for this reason.
But as the lockdown continued, it became clear that potential employees were staying home due to their generous unemployment payments. Benoit says he had some people who wanted to work “a few days a week,” but not so much that they’d lose their unemployment benefits.
Benoit thinks the restaurant has lost 20 employees since the COVID-19 quarantine started. The consequences have been significant. Those in drive-thru lines must now wait a little longer for food.
Darrell’s must often shut off its Waitr service because it doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with the orders. Worst of all, at times there is now only enough staff to man one of the restaurant’s two kitchens.
Benoit sums it up succinctly: “We’re just having a hard time getting people.” The recent announcement that L’auberge Lake Charles will lay off 441 employees by August is probably not going to be a positive for employment in the local service sector.
Outside The Service Industry
Perhaps we’ll get a clearer picture of the employee shortage problem if we assume that all the shortfalls aren’t taking place in the service sector.
For instance, Lori Morrison, manager and partner of Coastal Staffing Service, says there is an “across the board” shortage of workers in the “construction side” of the SWLA economy. The shortage is hitting each major area: utilities, construction, commercial.
She thinks this is very much a result of COVID-related unemployment payments to potential workers who are at home. Before the COVID measures kicked in, Coastal Staffing routinely got 60 calls for unemployment per week. Now it’s down to 15 a week. And most of those 15, says Morrison, are coming from Texas.
As anyone who’s been on unemployment knows, the recipient is required to provide evidence that he’s seeking work. The customary way to do this is to provide a list of businesses where one is supposed to have applied for a job. Morrison says a number of people in the Lake Area are doing this at Coastal Staffing, but are not seriously seeking the jobs they claim to have applied for. Technically, says Morrison, this is unemployment fraud. But, she thinks, the state’s unemployment agencies are far too “backed up” right now to concern themselves with such matters.
“It’s been a struggle for a lot of employers,” says Morrison. “They’re just trying to get people to go back to work.”
Risk Versus Wage
“I’m not going to discount” the problem of people finding enough employees, says Thomas Clemons, strategic partner and co-owner of PrideStaff. But he doesn’t think the bumped up unemployment payments are “as big a problem as some would lead us to believe.”
He does think that as a result of the amount of the unemployment payments “people are realizing they were vastly underpaid.”
And there’s more to it than just dollars and cents. “There’s still a lot of anxiety about the environment we’re working in,” he says. Those sheltering in place are “comparing the risk factors [of the workplace] to the low wages.”
“It’s a competitive environment … It’s been a paradigm shift … It’s incumbent on businesses to make that adjustment.”
I asked Clemons for an example of an area where he’d seen a wage adjustment in response to COVID conditions. He referred me to the local hospitality sector. Before the lockdown, wages were routinely $10 an hour or less. Now many businesses have set a benchmark of $12. And some of these are offering bonuses.
As you can see, the present employment situation in Southwest Louisiana is far from uniform. Of this much we can be sure: those who want employment at present should have no problem getting it.