After an up-and-down year due to the pandemic, customers are now flocking back to Banh Mi Viet, a neighborhood restaurant in far north Fort Worth that features Vietnamese-style baguette sandwiches and other delicacies like those found on that country’s streets.
The general manager, Nhien Nguyen, only wishes he had enough workers at his eatery to stay open more than five days a week, so he could meet the demand.
“It has forced us to close two days a week instead of one,” Nguyen said on a recent afternoon, as he took a seat at the lone vacant table inside his eatery, surrounded by customers eating their lunches and sipping bubble drinks.
Across the Dallas-Fort Worth region, restaurant owners and retailers say they’re struggling to return their businesses to pre-pandemic levels of operation, mainly because they can’t fill job vacancies.
Nguyen said he has an immediate need for at least one more employee in the front of the shop, and at least one more in the kitchen. Banh Mi Viet, which opened about four years ago and before the COVID shutdown was operating six days a week, is now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays — and the reduced schedule will probably stay that way until more jobs are filled.
His workers average $12 an hour, far higher than the $7.25 minimum wage in Texas.
“People don’t want to apply, or when they apply they don’t come back,” Nguyen said. “Even if I paid $15 a hour, they would rather work at Amazon.”
‘COVID fatigue’ at restaurants
Job openings have skyrocketed in the past six or seven weeks, not only in restaurant, retail and other service industries, but also sectors such as construction and manufacturing, according to the Federal Reserve of Dallas.
Restaurants in particular seem to be experiencing a rush of customers who may feel “COVID fatigue” — an eagerness to dine out after spending much of the past 14 months stuck at home, said Laila Assanie, senior business economist at the Dallas Fed.
Data provided to the Dallas Fed by OpenTable shows that online reservations at Texas restaurants are now above pre-pandemic levels, she said. But the restaurants don’t have enough workers to serve all those hungry patrons.
“Our contacts in the restaurant industry, they said their biggest headwind is hiring the staffing needed to open to capacity,” she said. “Several told us of having to offer hiring bonuses, or raising pay for workers.”
Vicki Cisneros, president of Cisneros Restaurants Inc., has reduced hours at all three of her Los Vaqueros Restaurants in the Fort Worth area, and also initiated a referral incentive for employees. For example, if a server refers a friend to a job opening and both employees stay at least 30 days, each receives $100.
Because of a shortage of workers, the location near TCU is now closed on Sundays, and the Los Vaqueros West in the Willow Park/Aledo area closes at 3 p.m. after Sunday brunch. Those locations as well as the Los Vaqueros at the Stockyards are also closed Mondays.
“We are definitely struggling! We are fortunate in that we have a strong core of long-time employees who are willing to put in extra hours and extra effort,” Cisneros said in an email. “We keep thinking each month that the situation will improve but I am not sure it will; for full-service restaurants, we may have to engage in a large-scale training program with flexible hours and higher server base pay!”
Retailers now hiring
Retailers are feeling the tight labor market, too.
Lowe’s home improvement stores are trying to fill 975 jobs in Dallas-Fort Worth stores, and has 4,000 openings across Texas. The company recently held a nationwide job fair, with application tables set up in each store to make it easy for prospective employees to stop by Lowe’s.
“I can’t speak for other retailers, but I can share that Lowe’s stores have been actively hiring in DFW area since we headed into spring and we are building on that strong hiring momentum,” spokesperson Steve Salazar said. “We are rounding out our teams by filling open seasonal, part-time and full-time positions, adding to the 90,000 associates Lowe’s hired into permanent roles nationwide last year.”
In 2019 and 2020, the company spent more than $1.4 billion in incremental wages and equity programs for front line workers. Lowe’s offers benefits for part-time workers, and quarterly profit-sharing bonuses for all hourly associates. Last year, Lowe’s paid $365 million in profit-sharing bonuses to hourly employees, and more than $900 million in incremental financial support for workers who stuck with the company during the pandemic.
Many business owners blame generous state and federal unemployment benefits for keeping workers at home. Unemployment payments were increased during the pandemic, providing many people in the United States with as much or even more money than they would normally make in a low-wage job.
The Dallas Fed’s most recent Texas Business Outlook Survey found that 80% of business owners cited a lack of applicants as their main impediment to filling jobs, and 48% cited generous unemployment benefits.
But Assanie noted that unemployment insurance claims have dropped substantially, and the enhanced unemployment benefits will expire in the coming months. Also, for many low-wage workers, the stimulus checks many people received at the end of 2020 are already spent — or soon will be.
“The unemployment benefits are temporary and so are the stimulus checks,” Assanie said. “As some of those things go away, we will probably see people come back.”
About 12% of business owners said their prospective hires couldn’t come back to work because of problems arranging child care, and another 8% cited continued concerns about contracting COVID, including many who live with someone in a high-risk group.
Assanie also noted that many other industries including manufacturing, trucking and transportation, professional services and construction also are experiencing a lack of job applicants. But those industries don’t get the the same attention as restaurants and retailers, whose “Help Wanted” signs are more visible to the public.
Flexible work schedules
At Los Vaqueros Restaurants, Cisneros said she understands that many workers need help and flexibility, especially because many after school programs still are not offering the pre-pandemic levels of child care.
“We are all doing the best we can do and we have to remember that the well-being and mental health of our employees are vital at this time,” she said. “We try to be extremely understanding in regard to flexibility regarding schedules, but it is difficult, to say the least, when we are busy.”