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Businesses scramble for help as job openings go unfilled

ap photo This photo provided by Hannah Albert on Sept. 23 shows Steve Klatt, left, and Brandon Lapp, owners of Braised in the South, a Johns Island, S.C, restaurant and food truck business that is having trouble finding workers during the pandemic. Many small businesses find hiring more difficult because many would-be staffers fear contracting COVID-19 on the job or would prefer to live off unemployment benefits.

NEW YORK — It looks like something to celebrate: small businesses posting “Help Wanted” signs as the economy edges toward normalcy. Instead, businesses are having trouble filling the jobs, which in turn hurts their ability to keep up with demand for their products or services.

Owners say that some would-be workers are worried about catching COVID-19 or prefer to live off unemployment benefits that are significantly higher amid the pandemic. Child care is another issue — parents aren’t able to work when they need to tend to or home-school their children. For some people, a combination of factors go into their decision not to seek work.

When Steve Klatt and Brandon Lapp set up interviews for their restaurant and food truck business, they’re lucky if one out of 10 or 15 applicants comes in.

“The people who do show up, all assume their unemployment is running out,” says Klatt, whose business, Braised in the South, is located in Johns Island, South Carolina. The maximum weekly unemployment benefits in the state are $626 including $300 in federal coronavirus relief payments; in some states, maximum unemployment is over $700 a week.

Klatt and Lapp need 20 people to run the business well but have only five staffers. Former chefs, the owners and their wives are working in the kitchen and on the truck to keep things running. Klatt and Lapp recently decided to curtail their Sunday hours and close Mondays to give everyone a break.

“The hit to the bottom line will be noticeable, but it’s not worth burning out the few awesome people we do have working for us,” Klatt says.

Businesses of all sizes are struggling with hiring even with millions of Americans unemployed and as increasing numbers of people get vaccinated and look forward to a more normal life. A Census survey taken in late March shows that 6.3 million didn’t seek work because they had to care for a child, and 4.1 million said they feared contracting or spreading the virus.

But smaller companies that often can’t offer pay and benefits as generous as larger companies have a tougher time.

“A shortage of talent is nothing new for small businesses, but the circumstances surrounding this shortage are entirely different,” says Jill Chapman, a consultant with Insperity, a human resources provider.

The National Federation of Independent Business found in a March survey of its own members that 42 percent had job openings they couldn’t fill. Owners cited higher unemployment benefits as one factor.

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