Susan Bates doesn’t know if it’s one thing or a combination of several that are causing her such headaches at Tipsy McSway’s, her popular restaurant on Newcastle Street.
But she knows what she sees on the news about people unable to return to work at restaurants being unable to pay their bills.
“I find it interesting that what I read in the news and reality are two different things,’’ she said. “There’s plenty of work. If you’re not working right now, you’re not trying.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that the economy added 916,000 jobs in March and that unemployment had declined slightly from 6.2 percent to 6 percent. Of those jobs, 176,000 were at restaurants, bars and other food service establishments.
Bates is ready to contribute to a further drop in unemployment, but no one is applying to work.
Bates’ plight is common in the food, beverage and retail industries, many of which are struggling to find workers. She is unsure why but thinks some of it is because Congress keeps the stimulus and unemployment checks coming. That’s allowing people to stay home somewhat comfortably.
The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill included $1,400 checks to individuals and extended unemployment benefits.
Bates understands some fear contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, but she is having a hard time serving customers flocking to open restaurants for a sit-down meal with family and friends.
“We’ve had such an influx of business in the past month,” she said. “We can’t keep up with it. We have had to make changes in the way we do business. I’ve taken tables out of here.
“People are a year in their homes, and they want to be out. We are covered up with people.”
Covered up with customers but not staff, and she’s competing with a lot of others.
“I’ve never seen so many people advertising for workers,’’ Bates said.
Patrick Parker said he’s lost workers to the pandemic at his 11 Parker’s convenience stores, and they’re not coming back.
“We’re in the worst shape personnel-wise than we’ve ever been. We are actually looking at changing store hours,’’ including at his popular store in the pier village, he said.
“We’ve been 24 hours for 20 years (at the store),” Parker said. “We’re going to have to start shutting down at 11 p.m.”
Stores can’t remain open with just one person. He needs someone to run the register while another makes coffee, cleans up spills, replaces products on shelves and helps customers find things, he said.
Parker misses the days of going through applications and picking employees.
“We usually have a lot of applicants, and it’s finding the best ones. Now we have no applicants,’’ he said.
His brother, Greg, who owns about 60 Parker’s to the north, all the way to Charleston, S.C., is having the same difficulties. In his new stores, Greg Parker has put in self-checkout registers.
Patrick Parker said he understands why people would stay home if the money continues coming, and he is very grateful to those who keep coming to work.
“In some communities they make $400 per week gross, and they’ve got their children to take care of (because some school’s aren’t open). It makes more sense to stay home,’’ he said.
At the same time, they’re getting $300 in weekly unemployment benefits.
“It’s hard to compete with the government. They don’t pay taxes on what they get from the government,’’ and they also don’t work, Parker said.
David Bland, who owns six Wendy’s restaurants in Glynn County, St. Marys, Kingsland, Richmond Hill and Jesup, said he is experiencing the same shortage of applicants to replace people he has lost.
“I like to have 30 people working per store,’’ Bland said, but he is far short of that in some locations. “I literally could hire 30 to 40 people today.”
“I’ve been doing this 25 years” and the competition for workers is the worst he’s ever seen, Bland said. “Everybody I know in this business has a ‘Hiring Now’ sign in the window.”
Because he can’t find employees, he has to keep some of his dining rooms closed during spring break, typically a prolonged period of good traffic, especially for his stores near Interstate 95.
Bland said it is also the time of year when people take off a couple of weeks when their income tax refunds arrive. With the $1,400 stimulus checks and unemployment checks, those impromptu vacation periods have been extended, he said.
Bland said he fully understands why people would choose to not work.
“People are rational. Regardless of the status they live in, they choose the route of least resistance,’’ he said.
Bland said he is all in favor of a government safety net and that people sometimes need to collect unemployment and everyone needs medical insurance, but he wonders why the government isn’t offering an incentive to work. If the government had a program under which he could subsidize workers by 20 percent, he likely wouldn’t have a labor shortage, but he can’t afford to do it on his own, Bland said.
He also knows the pandemic remains a factor in keeping people home. Some live in homes with three generations and don’t want to take the virus home to vulnerable family members, Bland said.
He said he appreciates the people who have been with him for 10 years or more who still get up, get dressed and come to work. He wishes he could pay them more, but his businesses won’t support it.
A glance at the unemployment rate in 10-county Coastal Georgia would make it appear that people have returned to work after the unemployment rate hit a high of 13.7 percent in April 2020. In February 2020, the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent and was 4.4 percent last month.
The explanation may be in Georgia Department of Labor statistics showing that the civilian labor force in the three-county Brunswick metropolitan statistical area declined by about 1,000 workers in the same period. That could be an indication that a number of people in Glynn, McIntosh and Brantley counties aren’t looking for jobs, he said.