As Federal Unemployment Benefits End, Employers Still Struggle To Fill Vacancies

When New York City lifted indoor dining restrictions for bars and restaurants in May, Megan Rickerson looked forward to finally hiring back bartenders and filling several other positions that had been eliminated during the shutdown.

“We needed two people in the kitchen and the very least a dishwasher, barback, busser,” said Rickerson, owner of the Someday Bar in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. 

She advertised on Facebook and posted help-wanted signs in the window, but several potential hires fell through. A few ghosted her and one new bartender quit without notice. 

“There was a lot of flaking,” Rickerson said. 

Now, she and thousands of business owners are hoping to attract more after special federal unemployment benefits that had been extended to workers will draw workers back onto their payrolls. 

Up to 800,000 New York City residents will lose federal benefits — as much $600 per week, according to the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs..

But Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said data from other states indicate employers will still face challenges. In June and July, 26 states stopped their federal unemployment benefits and saw little change in the labor shortage.

“Employment growth in the states that ended supplemental (aid) early is no different than in the states that kept (it),” said Zandi. “And that’s the same in industries where you’d expect this to be a big deal, like leisure and hospitality, and you just don’t see it.”

The unemployment rate is 10.5 percent in New York City. Still, a survey of Empire state business leaders in August by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found almost 63% had difficulty hiring workers. The top reason they cited was a lack of qualified applicants.

Alan Rosen is the owner of Junior’s restaurant, known for its cheesecake. To fill nearly 200 positions at his three city locations, he’s offering signing and retention bonuses. 

“Over the past three, four, five weeks, we’ve definitely seen a lot more traction,” he said. Rosen is also optimistic that the reopening of New York City’s public schools next week will encourage more parents to find jobs, because they won’t have to worry as much about childcare.

At Baldor Specialty Foods in the Hunts Point Produce Market, human resources director Ellen Barrera has about 130 openings for drivers, food processors and warehouse workers. 

“We raised our salaries to $19 an hour,” from $17 previously. The Bronx-based business also doubled its sign-on bonuses to $3,000, and is holding job fairs. She said nearly 80 people attended last week, compared to fewer than 15 earlier in August.

Not all employers think jobs will fill up quickly. Raffaello Van Couten is a co-owner of Vantage Point Hospitality, which has a stake in more than 20 bars, restaurants, food trucks and coffee shops in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

To find workers, he raised wages and advertised online, with disappointing results. 

“Maybe one or two applications a week,” he said. Before the pandemic, he said, a Craigslist ad would “get like 40 crazies, and then maybe, like, 10 really great people,” he added. “Now I’m telling you, I would take those crazies” and train them.

Labor shortage woes extend throughout the region. In Monroe, New York, almost two hours north of New York City, local chamber of commerce president Heather Bell-Meyer described a “labor crisis” even as employers offer higher wages. 

She said the local Amazon and the LEGOLAND theme park can’t fill positions. A recent campaign aimed at encouraging people to find a job before the extended unemployment expires didn’t make a dent.

“There were employers that were seeing people making appointments for interviews and not showing up,” she recalled. “It’s a very sad time for employers.”

Restaurants and bars have also complained that the labor shortage is causing disruptions in their deliveries of beer and produce. At the Someday Bar, Rickerson said one order for perishable food was left on the street, outside her door. 

Ben Walker, senior vice president for sales, marketing and merchandising for Baldor Specialty Foods, said the food sector is struggling.

“Our on-time deliveries are still above 50% but have fallen from our usual rate of more than 90 percent,” he added.

Zandi from Moody’s also points out that the coronavirus is factoring into workers’ decisions to return – or not. Some vaccinated people may still be reluctant to travel and work in close proximity to others because of the contagious delta variant, he said.

Matthew Phifer, vice president of education and employment with Henry Street Settlement in Lower Manhattan, works with both job seekers and employers.

He said as more government agencies and businesses require potential hires to be vaccinated, that could make some people more comfortable applying for work. But not everyone, said Phifer.  

“A lot of our job seekers are on the fence,” he said, explaining that he’s met some who are opposed to getting vaccinated. “And to an employer, that’s just like, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’”

That’s been the experience of Nancy De La Rosa, the owner of Molino Rojo near Yankee Stadium. Now that she has to require proof of vaccination, she’s meeting people who won’t get the vaccine because they don’t trust it.

At the Someday Bar in Brooklyn, Dennis Umana joined the staff a few months ago as a chef. He had been collecting unemployment since losing his job at another restaurant last year, and said he was hoping to find work during the winter because he was tired of sitting at home. But he said too many places were taking advantage of people. 

“You know, [you’d] be the only person in the kitchen,” he explained. “Close, open, close, wash dishes, you know, sweep and mop.”

At 40, Uman, is an experienced chef. He said the restaurant industry has long hours and difficult conditions even in good times, and he could understand why some people preferred collecting unemployment, especially if they were making about the same amount of money. 

His boss, Megan Rickerson, has gotten some positive signs. After raising wages and outreach efforts, she recently hired three workers. One of them referenced the impending loss of unemployment.

“They thought that maybe when unemployment lifted that there would be, like, a rush back to the job market where jobs might not be available.”  

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering the city’s recovery efforts at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.

Source