In the hard-hit restaurant industry, hiring more staff is a big challenge in western Pennsylvania.

A sign looking for a job hangs in the window of Anchor Inn in Harrison. He’s been there for about six months.

That sign garnered only two applicants, owner Joe Kolek said on Thursday.

“Everyone has ‘help wanted’ signs,” Kolek said. “I think everyone is in the same boat trying to get employees.”

Western Pennsylvania restaurateurs agree that good help is increasingly difficult to find as pandemic restrictions relax.

Many are bewildered.

John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said he had heard many anecdotes about a staff shortage in restaurants. There are several reasons restaurants may have trouble finding workers, one of which predates the coronavirus pandemic.

“When the pandemic started, we had a labor shortage in the country, and we certainly had one in our industry,” he said.

Unemployment rates are falling rapidly, even though they are still a long way from the tiny numbers of early 2020.

Extended unemployment benefits are still in effect, which Longstreet says may make some people reluctant to return to work. He said there was no hard data yet to measure the problem.

Finally, the tumultuous cycle of restaurant closings and reopens may have left potential workers hesitant to take jobs with an uncertain future, Longstreet said.

“The shutdowns of our industry in Pennsylvania have been so unpredictable and on such short notice that employees don’t know what to expect,” he said.

During the pandemic, Kolek lost six or seven employees – some of them quit, others chose not to return to work after being made redundant.

“When they’re fired, you can’t bring someone back under covid conditions,” Kolek said.

The problem is hampered by the extra money paid to people who collect unemployment, Kolek said.

“It’s a bit difficult if people are more and more unemployed,” he said. “You have to blame the game, not the player.”

Sam’s Tavern in the Wall faces similar issues, chef Nick Bentzel said. The Aspinwall restaurant is looking to hire new workers, especially for the night.

Bentzel said the property is posting job listings on websites, including Indeed and Facebook, while also hanging signs outside the restaurant.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t know if this is just for the culinary industry or if other industries are experiencing it as well. “

The restaurant industry, he said, may not be the most attractive to new workers, which could make the problem worse.

“This could be because the culinary industry is somewhat stressful, it’s a low-paying job, and you’re rarely offered any perks or other perks that other companies do,” Bentzel said, noting that Walmart pays more, as do corporate fast food chains.

“Why would anyone want to work in a real restaurant when they can work in a fast food restaurant and get paid more? ” he said.

During the pandemic, they lost around 60% of their kitchen staff.

Now, as capacity increases, they are running out of those workers.

“We are understaffed now because there are more and more people,” said Bentzel. “We are in trouble. I’m busy – I need an extra hand.

They hope to hire two or three more workers for the kitchen, he said, but he is not sure if or when it will be easier to hire.

“I can see that some companies cannot stay open because they cannot supply the workforce,” he said.

Kolek tried to offer incentives, offering bonuses to any employee who might recruit a new worker. Yet he still struggles to find more cooks and waitresses at short notice.

Even more worrying is the shortage of workers, as restaurants start to see more customers and capacity allowances soar to 75% over Easter. Customers, he said, will have to be patient as restaurants work with limited staff.

“Everyone is going to have to understand that things have changed since covid, and we don’t have the employees,” Kolek said. “Customer turnaround time could be a bit slower than before. “

A “help wanted” sign has been on display at Abie & Bimbo’s Pizza in Greensburg for over a month.

It’s much longer than usual, according to owner Doug Mirolli.

“Normally when we post a help-seeking panel, we get a certain number of people in a week or two,” he said. “In the last month and a half, I have received four applications.

Under-staffed, Mirolli himself worked several empty shifts. When that isn’t enough, he calls friends and family to take a shift or two on busy nights.

Longstreet of the Restaurant Association suspects the shortage of restaurant workers will be a short-term problem. As the pandemic ends and the industry stabilizes, people will return to work, he said.

There’s another darker reason why Longstreet believes the shortage will be short-lived.

He said many restaurants would never recover from the financial losses suffered during the pandemic. If they remain closed, it means that the supply of restaurant workers will increase as the demand for labor decreases.

“When the pandemic comes out, there will be a lot fewer restaurants,” he said.

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Cecil N. Messick