Eve Williams is planning to open her new Mojo Burrito restaurant just down the road from the existing location on Dayton Boulevard, but she’s got one big worry.
“We’ll need at least a dozen more employees, and we haven’t had any applications come in at all,” said Williams, who has closed locations in St. Elmo, East Brainerd and Ooltewah largely because of staffing shortages. Just running her single existing location in Red Bank is a challenge, she added.
“We don’t have a dishwasher, we don’t have a dining room person — it makes it really hard to operate,” she said.
Across Chattanooga, “Help Wanted” signs are sprouting up with spring flowers as the economy edges toward normalcy. While that may seem like good news, many business owners are having trouble filling the jobs they need to keep up with growing demand.
Zack DeBord, head of operations for the local Wendy’s franchise Wen Choo Choo Inc., said the current market “is the worst hiring environment we’ve ever seen and it’s not even close.
“We’re closing early in many locations and also closing many dining rooms due to lack of employees,” DeBord said.
At Mojo Burrito, Williams recently considered closing on Mondays to make staffing easier, but decided against it, she said.
“We have to quit going back and forth,” she said. “We’re just going to hold tight.”
Though employers have yet to hire as many workers as they had before the pandemic, many jobs are going unfilled. Tennessee still had 84,300 fewer jobs last month than a year earlier, including 43,100 fewer jobs in the leisure and hospitality industries, and unemployment in March across the state edged up a tenth of a percentage point to 5%.
Starving for helpChattanooga restaurants struggle to find staff
But the state’s career centers on Wednesday were listing 245,874 open jobs, or nearly 47% more jobs than the 167,333 people who were unemployed in March, state figures show.
Williams speculates ongoing unemployment payments, fresh stimulus checks and people who have left the restaurant industry altogether may be driving the shortage.
“I wish I had the answer,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Staff shortages have been a problem for several years, but the pandemic has made them dramatically worse, she added. In addition to closing locations, Williams has reduced the complexity of her menu and hasn’t been able to return to normal operations in her remaining restaurant.
“We are unable to open our line because we do not have enough people to be able to serve customers one after another coming in the door and keep up with online orders,” she said.
She pays $10 an hour or more plus tips, and knows that many other local restaurateurs who are struggling with similar problems pay well, too, Williams said.
“We’ve been good strong employers in this town, we take care of people,” she said. “I don’t know why we’re not getting people.”
The labor force participation rate has dropped over the past year