Metro area restaurants, like many across the nation, find it a struggle to hire employees.
Jackson restaurateur Jeff Good took a playful approach earlier this month to solve the problem: He held a hiring carnival with games, balloons and free ice cream plus a $20 gift card awarded to anyone who completed an application and interviewed for a job at Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint in The District in Jackson.
There’s also an incentive: a $200 bonus for new full-time employees and a $100 bonus for part-time employees at the 90-day mark who have no incident reports.
Forty-five people applied during the carnival, Good said.
“It was a huge hit,” he said “We could not be happier. We found some great smiling faces and some real kitchen talent, but there’s always room for more.”
On April 15, Sal & Mookie’s is scheduled to open at its new location in The District and will need 60-70 employees to staff the restaurant, he said, noting that a few of those will be lost to attrition upon opening as is usually the case.
Good, who got the idea for the hiring event from a pizzeria in another state, expects more restaurants will offer incentives as a way to attract employees.
“My goal with the carnival was to get people’s attention,” he said. “I’m having a hard time finding waiters. I’m having a hard time finding qualified cooks and bakers, people who actually know how to bake. I’m having a hard time finding enough high school kids who want to dip ice cream or bus tables.”
Human beings by far are the most important asset of his business, which operates not only Sal & Mookie’s but also Broad Street Café & Baking Company and Bravo! Italian Restaurant and Bar, Good said.
When Bravo! opened 27 years ago, there was no shortage of employees, he said. A baker, who worked at Bravo! for 14 years before opening her own business, often says that it took her a year to land her job at there, he said.
Jennifer Emerson, managing partner for Walker’s Drive In and Parlor Market, which are located in Jackson, as well as Local 463, and Caet, which are located in Ridgeland, said the restaurants employed a mix of 250 full-time and part-time staff members before the onset of the pandemic and now has 110-120 employees.
The restaurants shut down in the middle of March 2020 and didn’t reopen until the end of May and early June, she said, and that made it tough in terms of staff.
“We had a big percentage of staff who didn’t come back,” she said. “Our biggest dilemma is finding staff.”
To meet the demand for staff, inexperienced individuals are being hired and trained, she said. “We’re definitely hiring people who don’t have the resumes that they used to have,” she said.
Walker’s Drive In, Local 463 and Caet are all closed on Monday nights now, she said. Before the pandemic, they would all have been open all day on Monday.
“We’re open half of the shifts at Caet than we were before,” Emerson said. “At Walker’s and Local 463, we’re down four shifts a week.”
Before the pandemic Caet was open for lunch Monday through Saturday and now it serves lunch only on Friday, she said.
Parlor Market, once a popular restaurant in downtown Jackson, is now used for parties.
Emerson and her team once managed the Capital Club in downtown Jackson but gave that up because it lacked the staff to man it.
Scott Koestler, owner of Koestler Prime in Ridgeland, feels fortunate to have retained all but one of the 65 of the restaurant’s employees during the pandemic. A bus boy quit because he didn’t feel safe working, he said.
“I cannot imagine the headaches if we had shut down for an extended period of time,” he said. “Under the circumstances it would have been a challenging task. We were blessed.”
Restaurants have attrition just as businesses everywhere do, and hiring is tough, Koestler acknowledges.
Before the pandemic, an online job site would yield 90-100 random applicants. Typically, ten of those applicants might be called about a job, and three or four of those would show up and continue through the hiring process with one of them actually working out as an employee.
“Now you struggle to get that response,” he said, noting that restaurants aren’t the only ones struggling with hiring but so are suppliers and vendors.
Pat Fontaine, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said many restaurants were understaffed before the pandemic but the pandemic exacerbated it. “Right now, it’s almost at crisis mode,” he said.
Restaurants have scaled back hours, reduced the number of days they’re open and modified their service to require fewer employees, he said.
Some employers are offering hourly employees wages higher than federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) and providing incentives to keep long-term employees, Fontaine said.
“Many restaurants are looking for high school and college students to fill the need over the summer,” he said. “That will help but that will not be an answer to the problem.”
The combination of state and federal unemployment benefits plus stimulus checks contributed to the problem, he said.
“The current system to receive unemployment benefits requires that an individual seek employment with three documented applications each week,” he said, wondering if people are finding ways to manipulate the system.
“Members throughout the state report receiving phone calls from people asking how to submit a resume or application and they never hear back from them. Some members report they have 10 interviews scheduled and just two people show up, and just because you offer them the job doesn’t mean they’ll show up.”
Fontaine said the association depends upon the Mississippi Department of Employment Security to effectively administer the benefits program and eliminate abuse of the system.
Anyone who suspects fraud related to unemployment benefits can report it by calling 601-493-9427. More information is available at https://mdes.ms.gov/fraud.
In Mississippi, an individual’s unemployment benefits can range from $30 per week to $235 per week, said Erma Robinson-Cook, director of the Office of Re-Employment Assistance at the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation adds another $300 per week on top of state unemployment benefits. A Mississippian receiving both state unemployment and the federal supplement could receive from $330 per week to $535 per week.
Federal benefits are scheduled to end Sept. 4, Robinson-Cook said. A claim for unemployment benefits is established for a year.
The latest round of economic impact payments, often referred to as stimulus checks, provided up to $1,200 for individuals or $2,400 for married couples and up to $500 for each qualifying child.
Good believes unemployment benefits kept some restaurant employees from returning to work, but so have life changes.
Some individuals have returned to school, changed careers and/or moved while others dropped out of the workforce with concerns about their health because of COVID-19 or family members, he said. Childcare responsibilities also posed challenges.
By necessity, some people will have to return to work after all benefits are exhausted, Fontaine said.
“Once the stimulus funds have been exhausted, we’re hopeful that the majority of employees will see the need to return to work at that juncture,” Fontaine said.