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Kevin Drum chats with customers at his restaurant in the village of Pinehurst. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

In case you’ve missed all the “help wanted” signs, Moore County is clearly a job-seekers market. Service-industry employers like restaurants, retail shops and hair salons are all looking for help — and finding few takers to this point.

Business owners say the shrinking job applicant pool is the result of a combination of factors, exacerbated by the American Rescue Plan Act. Signed into law last month, that legislation extended pandemic-related federal unemployment compensation benefits of $300 per week through Sept. 4.

Combined with state benefits of a similar amount, some are finding they can collect unemployment benefits and collect as much or more as some jobs are paying.

The most recent unemployment data puts Moore County at a 5.2 percent jobless rate, the same as the state overall. That’s fairly typical for this time of year. According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, Moore County has a labor force of approximately 41,000 individuals. In February, around 2,116 were unemployed. March figures will be released soon.

But it’s not just Moore County residents who fill local jobs. The local service industry relies heavily on workers commuting in from more rural surrounding areas, where unemployment figures are usually higher. Scotland County, for instance, had the state’s highest unemployment rate at 10.9 percent in February.

But as jobs go unfilled, restaurants are having to find other solutions. Some have reduced their operating hours so as not to burn out their existing staff. Others have kept their dining rooms at reduced capacity to ensure customers receive the same quality of service. And some have offered sign-on bonuses or raised salaries to attract new hires.

“We are busier now than we were in 2019, probably by at least 25 percent,” said Kelly Ward of Midland Bistro in Southern Pines. “Every morning we are completely filled with golfers. Also, with more people getting the vaccine and things opening back up more, we are seeing more of our regulars.”

Ward’s restaurant on Midland Road is known for its quaint atmosphere and her emphasis on local produce. Her hiring woes began last year after she had reopened following the state-ordered closures that began in March 2020. Nearly all of her employees returned, initially, but then she lost a handful to military relocations.

“I ran ad after ad after ad to fill these positions,” Ward said, noting that two more employees have since quit and applied for COVID-related unemployment benefits. “So you have a situation where people are making money sitting home doing nothing. But what happens when they all want to come back to work?”

Prior to the pandemic, Ward would typically put in a 40-hour work week. These days she’s racking up 65 to 70 hours at the restaurant, in addition to another 10 to 15 hours a week handling paperwork.

“I prep, I cook, then I wait tables in the afternoon. I have my 72-year-old mother washing dishes,” Ward said. “I am thankful for the business but, at the same time, I am exhausted.”

Southern Pines native Ashley Van Camp closed the doors at Ashten’s Restaurant for several weeks in 2020. She credits the federal Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) for ensuring her staff stayed employed.

“I have a core group of people that have been with me forever. But I also pepper in younger staff or people who can only work a few nights a week. They make a big difference since the core group can’t work every day,” Van Camp said.

As the pandemic wore on, those part-time helpers and younger staff members didn’t stay on. That left only her core group to handle the day-to-day operations of the downtown restaurant and pub. Van Camp believes many people left the restaurant business for good as a result of COVID-19.

“(Independent) Restaurants are usually not big enough to provide benefits like health insurance. They may also have found jobs that didn’t require them to work nights and weekends or found jobs with a more consistent paycheck,” Van Camp said. “This is hard on a town that relies on hospitality. There was a small pool to draw from and they are just not there.”

For now, Van Camp has decided to close Ashten’s on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“My staff was getting stressed and burned out. And our customers expect Ashten’s as it was pre-COVID: that detail, that service. What they don’t realize is what we’ve gone through for over a year. They need to see the hospitality industry is struggling because those vital people are not available.”

Around the corner in downtown Southern Pines, Con O’Mahoney of the Bell Tree Tavern also announced last week that he will shutter his restaurant and pub on Monday and Tuesday evenings. That decision is a direct result of the federal government’s decision to extend unemployment benefits through the summer.

“I have been posting job ads for months. We have not been able to hire people even though our payscale has gone up,” O’Mahoney said. “My staff that I have is good and, thank God, we have a community that supports local businesses. But as far as hiring, you can’t do it.

“You have franchises offering $10.50 an hour to start, you have Olive Garden offering signing bonuses, you have people changing their business hours and you have help wanted signs posted all over,” he added. “Other places are seeing this too, it’s just that we are booming in Moore County and that is a good thing.

“With jobs, there is money to be made and being left on the table. We just don’t have the workforce.”

O’Mahoney also sees an overall downward trend with fewer people getting into restaurant work, which is known to be a demanding, fast-paced environment. In addition, the uptick in military families living locally has created more demand for services.

“We are fortunate to have an influx of Special Forces. They are the reason we are booming in this county. They are building houses left and right and the market is incredible,” O’Mahoney said. “But these guys have jobs. They are not all married but the ones who are, their spouses are looking for flexible work or raising a family, and their kids usually aren’t old enough to work.”

Reducing the Bell Tree Tavern’s business hours made sense strategically, despite the loss of revenue.

“We are doing damage control. It is not a perfect scenario or a perfect science. I felt like my staff needed the downtime,” he said. “You hate to shoot yourself in the foot and not have any money coming in. But you have to decide if the money is worth it or the quality of life is worth it. You can maintain your employees and give them a break or you’ll sacrifice even more.”

Kevin Drum, who owns the Drum & Quill in Pinehurst and serves as board chairman of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association Foundation, said the area’s hospitality industry needs to look beyond the current hiring crisis.

“We have a PR problem with getting people interested in working in restaurants. We have a shortage problem with hiring, and we have no local pipeline with a trade school,” Drum said. “There is a lot going on there and I fight this everyday.”

Drum would like to see Moore County Schools and Sandhills Community College get their plans for an Advanced Career Center back on track. The curricula should include a culinary trade program designed by the restaurant industry with apprenticeship opportunities in local eateries. Similarly, he sees value in a more robust construction/building and STEM trades programs to encourage economic development.

“Instead of complaining about the situation, which is real, I’m trying to solve it. There is no better expense than education and I recommend we use some of that federal stimulus money coming in.”

“This is not just a COVID thing, it is a constant issue,” Drum added. “We are not closing down as a hospitality destination. We are open in Moore County all the time. We don’t have the luxury to close, and the best way to maintain that is having a high level local trades programming. The first thing a business looks for is where they will get their workforce.”

The labor shortage for restaurants is particularly vexing, he said, because the job can be lucrative, versatile and can be a great training ground for other endeavors.

“With a hospitality job, you can live anywhere in the world you want,” Drum said. “This job also prepares you for life better. The hospitality industry doesn’t mind if you use the job as a bridge to your future career. We teach you how to deal with people, deal with problems and take on responsibility.”

“And it is a pretty good job as a career too. I have servers making more money than if they were working in corporate America.”

(5) comments

Justin Bradford

So, some are choosing to live safely in poverty rather than having to confront masses of maskless, science denying, gun toting, Qanon believers, every day to earn a poverty wage. Makes perfect sense to me.

Matthew Gritzmacher

Here's a radical idea: businesses could pay their employees more, rather than pointing a finger at the supposed boogeyman of governments who would (gasp) rather see individuals keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

Businesses also had access to government support, in the form of PPP funds in both 2020 and 2021, and there are provisions in those loans for employers who are unable to rehire their employees for this exact reason.

If your business can't pay enough to lure workers out of meager unemployment payments, maybe you should rethink whether your business is even viable. I would much prefer to spend my money at businesses that treat their employees well.

David StClair

I enjoy some of the restaurants mentioned in the article and hope they continue to succeed. That being said, if unemployment benefits are providing more money than full time employment then the problem isn't with government "handouts" it's with a free enterprise system where too many jobs do not provide a living wage.

Patricia Bryan

I counted 104 entries in the Pilot's latest Help wanted list, many needing more than just one job applicant. But if the government(s) are going to hand out money the likes of which you never earned working, why not stay unemployed? When a lot of businesses are forced to close for lack of help, and the government runs out of largesse, or the printing presses are tired of printing money, you might wish you had taken a job when they were plentiful. I think our population is growing rapidly with people who are willing to work for much less than you earned before unemployment, though.

Roy Ross

When the govt is giving potential workers tax free money where is the incentive to work...the only incentive is to vote for the pols that give you money...pretty screwed up unless you are a politician and you keep your job and the graft that goes with it.

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