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Businesses lament lack of staffers

Some in LR area pare hours, give more breaks to workers by Nathan Owens | May 16, 2021 at 2:34 a.m.

Some customers just want their suits dry cleaned. Others want to treat themselves with pressed bedsheets. The problem for one Little Rock dry cleaner is that a short staff means it struggles to meet demand.

"People are getting mad because employees only work Monday, Wednesday, Friday," said Patty Enderlin, manager at Oak Forest Cleaners. "We had to cut back, but didn't want to. ... Now we have all these people bringing in clothes."

It's not just dry cleaners needing help. Restaurants, retailers and others have been struggling to hire and retain workers for months.

Enderlin said her business fell 80% when the pandemic hit and has been slowly building back. The dry cleaner once employed 30 people, but that number is down to 20 despite help wanted ads on Craigslist and by word-of-mouth.

"Nobody files for any jobs," she said. "No one. It's crazy."

The main culprit, critics say, is the extension of a $300 federal unemployment benefit. Combined with the maximum state benefit, weekly unemployment insurance payments can be as much as $751 per week, about $19 an hour, according to Arkansas' Division of Workforce Services. The state's minimum wage is $11 per hour.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier this month directed the division of workforce services to end the state's participation in the federal supplemental program after June 26. A total of 16 states, including Missouri and Tennessee, have opted out, citing reports of employee shortages as businesses rebuild and covid-19 loosens its grip on the economy.

"As long as they are getting a check, that's the only thing we can figure," Enderlin said as to why the business struggles to find enough employees.

Last month, restaurant owners and managers said it was common for people to walk in, ask for applications and never call back. Staffing levels became so low that some restaurants adjusted hours to provide breaks for the workers that they did have.

At one point, Baja Grill in Little Rock had the equivalent of one crew spread across two restaurants and was closed Mondays to compensate.

The restaurant has since rebounded after sharing its situation on social media, owner Heather Baber-Roe said. There are currently two vacant spots to fill after receiving more than 400 applications.

Other small businesses have not fared as well.

Copper Mule Table & Tap in Bryant adjusted its hours last week, saying in a Facebook post that it would be temporarily closed for lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because there aren't enough employees.

Sara Nesbit, who works at Zaza's in Little Rock, said part of the problem is that working at a restaurant has become overwhelming, chaotic and demanding. In recent months she has been yelled at and cursed at by angry customers. She said one time a woman stood on a bar stool to yell about her pizza.

"The aggression towards the service industry has always been there, but it has gotten out of hand," Nesbit said.

Enderlin has experienced the same hostility lately.

"I think we just have more crazies," she said.

Mayur Patel, administrator at Bill's Lock & Safe in North Little Rock, said it's been harder to find people to work, but "it's hard to know why exactly."

A report last year by Yale economists found no evidence that enhanced unemployment benefits had an effect on the labor force. Using data from small businesses, such as restaurants, bars and retailers, researchers said people collecting expanded benefits resumed work at a similar or quicker rate than others did.

Employee advocates attribute slow hiring during the pandemic to low wages and poor working conditions.

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, said in a recent blog post that employers do not want to raise wages high enough to attract workers, and there's little evidence of a real worker shortage.

Corporations and franchises have struggled to find workers during the pandemic, with executives in earnings calls reporting increased worker turnover and absenteeism. To lure people back to work, companies that can afford to do so are offering incentives.

Cody Matthews, owner and operator of more than 30 McDonald's franchises in Northwest Arkansas, recently added a $300 sign-on bonus in an incentive package to attract new employees.

Around the middle of April he said there was a drastic change in the flow of applications.

"It was crazy, like they just stopped," Matthews said. Since adding the incentives, dozens of applicants have been hired, he said, and just in time. McDonald's will begin reopening to diners in June.

Amazon, the opposite of a small business, increased its incentives for new hires in Arkansas, promising more than $15 per hour, a $100 bonus for showing proof of vaccination and a $1,000 sign-on bonus for select positions. But Amazon needs to fill about 1,500 new positions, soon.

Meanwhile, starting pay at Oak Forest dry cleaner is minimum wage, and the pay increases with experience.

"We've been here 70 years and never seen anything like this," Enderlin said about the drop in applications. "It means at the end of the day we have to do a lot more work, because we're doing other people's jobs."

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