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NC Hospitality Industry Struggling To Find Workers Despite Growing Demand For Services

Tables sit vacant and pollen-covered at Kabab and Curry
Ben McKeown
Tables sat empty at several restaurants in the Triangle last year at the start of the pandemic.

The hospitality industry in Wake County, and across North Carolina, is struggling to hire back workers that were laid off during the pandemic. At the same time, the demand to travel and eat out at restaurants is increasing quickly as more people get vaccinated and pandemic restrictions ease.

"The need is very immediate and dire," said Scott Peacock, the public relations director of Visit Raleigh, the city’s tourism agency. “We need to fill these positions.”

About 66% of the 67,000 employees in the hospitality industry in the greater Raleigh area were let go because of pandemic-induced financial stress.

Now that employers are trying to hire those workers back, Peacock explained there’s several reasons why people may not want to return, or simply can’t. For example, many people who used to work in the industry have since found other jobs. Others may be concerned about possibly exposing themselves to COVID-19.

Peacock said another main reason is extended unemployment benefits.

“Depending on the job, you might be making more on unemployment benefits right now and be able to be at home and be safe,” Peacock said. “Those are barriers to people reentering the market and wanting to come back to work. “

Peacock encourages employers to offer competitive wages if possible, and to share their COVID-19 safety protocols with potential employees

Restaurants brace for challenges as capacity limits grow

Executive orders from Governor Roy Cooper allow restaurants to operate at 100% capacity outdoors and 75% capacity indoors, but still require six feet between customers. Cooper is expected to increase the indoor capacity limit soon. However, many restaurants may not be able to open up more until they find more employees.

"The need is very immediate and dire."
Scott Peacock, Director of Public Relations, Visit Raleigh

Sean Fowler is the owner of Mandolin, an upscale restaurant serving Southern-American food in Raleigh. At the beginning of the pandemic, he was forced to furlough a little over half of his staff. Since then, he’s brought back 95% of them.

“I feel very fortunate,” Fowler said.

Right now, Fowler is operating his restaurant at about 50% capacity to accommodate social distancing and has enough workers to make ends meet.

“But each week our business is increasing. We're getting busier and busier,” Fowler said. “Hiring new staff now is next to impossible. Every restaurant I know is hiring, and nobody is applying for (certain) positions. I'm nervous about what it's going to look like here in a month when we open up the doors (more).”

According to Fowler, positions including servers and bartenders are being filled more easily than other openings, like cooks.

Hotels face shortage of housekeeping staff

Similar to restaurants, hotels around Raleigh are also facing challenges hiring specific types of staff.

"Hiring new staff now is next to impossible."
Sean Fowler, owner of Mandolin

“A lot of hotels are reaching back to some of the managers they had on staff,” said Leon Cox, the general manager of the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel. “Those managers are seemingly… coming back to work.”

However, Cox said it’s been difficult to find housekeeping staff. Demand for housekeeping services has increased across several other industries because of the pandemic.

“They’re doing (housekeeping) in offices,” Cox said. “They’re doing that in retail space. They’re doing that in manufacturing. So that’s where that talent has moved to.”

To address this shortage, hotels are partnering with contract labor sources. Visit Raleigh plans to hold a virtual job fair next month.

Fowler is optimistic that the workforce will return.

“I think this is a temporary situation,” Fowler said. “We are going to rebound.”

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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