Workers Wanted

Local merchants scramble to fill jobs

By Cecily Hastings
October 2021

When the pandemic broke out, my big concern was our small business community. Obviously, global attention focused on people’s health and the rising COVID-19 death count. But I figured there was nothing much I could do about it, other than try to keep safe and my family safe.

I knew local small businesses were in for a rough time. Eager to help, our COO Daniel Nardinelli and I created the “Pledge 100% Local” campaign.

“Pledge 100% Local” meant exactly that. It was designed to help neighbors understand how important it is to buy from local businesses. A subtext was to support local employers. After all, they employ many of our neighbors.

Over the past year and half, I have spoken to many business owners. Mostly, we talk about staffing.

At first, business owners were heartbroken to lay off people. Everyone was grateful for the unemployment insurance system, along with additional federal benefits to help get folks through the pandemic. The generous benefits were designed to prevent foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies.

For many businesses, closures extended from weeks to months. Some reopened last October, only to quickly close again. Employers questioned their entire personnel structure. Who would come back to work? Who would take other jobs? How would extended unemployment benefits impact the challenge of filling work shifts? Most employers were very concerned.
Only a few were confident.

As businesses reopened this past spring, most found themselves short of workers. Neighborhood commercial areas were filled with signs pleading “Help wanted” and “We’re hiring.” Business practices changed. Lack of staff forced businesses to limit operating hours.

The Waterboy restaurant reopened in spring with dinners only on weekends. Lunch service was eventually added, but days were limited. There were several weeks when the restaurant closed to give hardworking staff time off.

I spoke with Josh Nelson, COO of Selland Family Restaurants, which owns Ella, The Kitchen, OBO’ and Selland’s Market-Café. The company employs from 350 to 375.

“Given we have younger-age workers at our three market locations, employee turnover has been dramatic, given their school schedules and ability to relocate easily,” Nelson says. “But we are trying a little of everything to successfully hire team members for all our locations.”

For the reopening of Ella, the company held a hiring fair. Given the turnover, Nelson tries to hire 135% above his needs to ensure there’s staff to keep locations operating. “And for every open position, we usually go through 25 applications to secure the best employee,” he says.

As I write this column, the weekly $300 federal benefit enhancement in California is ending. I ask Nelson if he thinks staffing will improve without the extra benefits. Emphatically he says, “I certainly hope so!”

While California extended the unemployment enhancement, many states did not. As a result, the economies and labor markets of many states recovered much faster than California. It only makes sense if you pay people generously to stay home, job openings will go unfilled. As a nation we are in a situation with high unemployment levels and high unemployment jobless claims. National policy is out of sync with human motivation.

Additionally, business owners report a level of exhaustion on every level of employee, management to clerk. Bosses have more to manage and fewer staff to carry out duties.

Frontline workers need to wear masks all day. They report customers are crankier and more demanding than ever. Nelson says his company has been closing its three markets on Sunday to give everybody a break.

“Many have been working double shifts,” he says. “We’re just trying to be mindful and respectful of our teams who are working through all these challenges.”

I saw a sign that summed it up. It was in a local Kelly-Moore Paints store. It said, “Staffing Shortage. It’s the New Pandemic! Please be Kind to our Staff.” I loved it!

Throughout the pandemic, I have been kinder and gentler to pretty much everyone. People seem to be fighting some type of battle, many with multiple challenges. I always have cash in my wallet to tip when I see extra effort. I make the effort to ask staff how they are doing, and listen and engage with them.

We can support our local small business community with our best attitudes. Be aware that many—especially younger folks—are still in training and haven’t worked in many months. Use a carrot, not a stick. Be kinder than necessary. Be as generous as possible. And always use the best manners in dealing with people who serve you.

Collectively, these actions will go a long way to improve our neighborhoods.

Cecily Hastings can be reached at publisher@insidepublications.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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