'We're not getting anybody applying': Local restaurants struggle to hire employees as workforce shifts

Posted at 4:59 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-29 10:59:21-04

This time last year, thousands of businesses were forced to close due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, many businesses did not make it through, but the ones that did are still facing challenges.

You can drive through just about any town in Central Texas and see dozens of "Help Wanted" or "We’re Hiring" signs. Portofino's Authentic Italian Restaurant in downtown Waco is no different. Management says they have had to layoff employees, close and reopen throughout the pandemic, and are now struggling to hire staff.

“That's the tough part. We're getting our business back but we don't have the staff to take care of them in the way we'd like to. We're only open part-time right now. We're not open days most days because I don't have the staff," explained Mark Moore, manager and waiter at Portofino's Authentic Italian Restaurant.

They’ve gone from a waitstaff of about 20 to half that in just a few months, now with openings in every corner of the restaurant.

“I got, I need two or three servers. I need another pizza maker. I need another dishwasher. Probably need another cook or two. Love to open it back up for lunch, but I can't right now. Not until we get some more people hired. We're down to like, I think probably eight or 10 if I actually counted it all up," Moore said.

The hustle and bustle of the restaurant industry has been Moore’s reality at Portofino's since 2015. After a year like 2020, he fears he may never be fully staffed.

“If, when we were able to come back, even partially, we couldn't get most of the staff back. They were getting so much unemployment, and still are, in some cases, we're not getting anybody applying,” Moore said.

Moore says waiters make good money, especially in tips, but he can’t compete with unemployment benefits.

According to Texas Work Force Commission's website, weekly benefit amount (WBA) could be between $70 and $535 depending on past wages.

"Waiters make good money. I think we make better than minimum wage, a lot better than minimum wage. But if you're paying them a salary plus $600 a week, I can't compete with that," Moore said.

It’s a dilemma Ron Jupiter, Chair of Economic Development with the Innovation Black Chamber of Commerce, says restaurants across our area are facing.

“Businesses have the opportunity to open back up, but the problem with the snapback is that the employees, they have gone through a change as well,” Jupiter said.

The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for people. Now there is a reluctance to return to work, especially to the restaurant, retail, entertainment industries that were the first ones to go belly-up.

“There's a lot of things that is driving this hesitance. It’s a feeling, and right now it's fear,” Jupiter said.

Everything from access to healthcare, child care, lack of transportation, and competing with larger cities for jobs, and a desire to work from home indefinitely are all things Jupiter says have shifted the workforce.

“These people are, they're looking for secure jobs, but they're not going to waste their time to get something that they had before and it failed them,” he continued.

Jupiter believes there needs to be a collaborative effort between small businesses and the different chambers of commerce to figure out ways to incentivize people to return to work. However, Jupiter feels no matter what is done, people won't go back to work until they feel comfortable.