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Restaurants deal with worker shortage

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to pull the state out of the federal unemployment benefits in June could not have come at a better time for business owners. Such benefits include an extra $300 per week for unemployed people and that would be have lasted through September — all the way through what is typically a busy summer season for the hospitality industry.

Facing a troubliong shortage of workers, hiring signs can be seen in windows and in front of numerous businesses in Marshalltown. As more and more people start becoming more comfortable with the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccination effort, they are leaving their homes, going out, spending money in stores and eating meals. Businesses and restaurants, many of whom had to furlough employees or had employees quit to protect their health, are now faced with the challenge of serving customers with a dwindled workforce.

Restaurants, in particular, are struggling to fill open spots.

Aaron Buzbee, owner of Zeno’s, Fiddle and Whistle and Wayward Social, said he is lacking 40 to 50 percent of what he actually needs in staff.

“We’d love to open up for lunch at Wayward, but we barely have enough staff to do our dinner service, so lunch is off the table until we can get staffed up again,” he said.

Buzbee said the only reason Fiddle and Whistle is still closed is because he has a greater need for a bartender at Wayward Social. The worker shortage for Zeno’s and Wayward has actually been going on for up to five years, he said.

“We’ve had troubles staffing and the pandemic only made things worse and multiplied that,” Buzbee said.

Alfonso Medina, owner of La Carreta, posted on social media about the shortage of workers. It has been a problem since 2008, he said, but even more so recently. A lot of restaurants had to let go 70 to 80 percent of their employees just to maintain delivery or carry-out services, he said.

“I was lucky enough for Marshalltown, I personally did not have to let go of anybody,” Medina said. “I lost a dishwasher when we were doing carry outs, so there was not a lot of dishes to be washed. My main cooks were the ones who were washing. We took turns. Luckily, I was able to keep most of my staff. I was very lucky.”

Now restaurants need to compete with one another for the available workforce. Buzbee said everyone he knows is hiring and they are all trying to get employees out of the same talent pool.

“We’ve bumped up our starting wages to try to entice people. We’ve tried to get friends of employees to apply and haven’t had any luck with any of that,” he said.

The online job boards, such as Indeed, have not been fruitful for Buzbee. He said it is hard to get people to respond to the posting. There have been times when interviews were scheduled and the applicants did not even show up. Buzbee does not know what to do to entice people back to work.

“Without a question, unemployment benefits have had an impact, for sure,” he said.

Medina is not sure if people are getting more on unemployment, but speculates perhaps they are just comfortable with what they are receiving.

“There’s no rush to get back to work,” he said. “There’s no rush to put those hard working hours in.”

In the meantime, those who stayed at work are getting tired.

“Our staff is really tired. We’re all tired,” Buzbee said. “We’ve had to make a lot of adjustments through the pandemic. Just when we thought it would be easier, it’s actually getting harder and we’re all just run down. We having to come in a few hours earlier and stay a few hours later. Weeks go by without days off because we just don’t have the staff to have the luxury of a day off.”

As customers return to the restaurants and stores in Marshalltown, they might notice a difference. Medina said a lot of businesses might not have the same quality of service because of the worker shortage.

“Service is not going to be what they expect,” he said.

Medina suggested businesses get creative during this difficult time. One thing he decided to do was sell bulk items to the community, such as toilet paper, chicken, cheese. That move allowed him to keep some part-time employees.

Medina also suggested businesses try some different actions to stay open during the shortage. Maybe they should close an extra day just to give staff a day off –provided the business can afford that closure — he said. Perhaps they can start or bring different services which can be operated with the current staff.

“Get creative and find ways to simplify your processes,” he said. “Computerize your systems, try to find ways to make your business need less labor, which is sad because I’ve always wanted to create more work.”

Contact Lana Bradstream and Noah Rohlfing at 641-753-6611 or lbradstream@timesrepublican.com and nrohlfing@timesrepublican.com.

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