NEW LONDON, Mo. — Many local businesses have been hit hard since the spring of 2020 because of COVID-19 shutdowns, but as their doors finally reopened to the public, some businesses now find they don’t have enough help to stay open.
“We have had to close early or close down on some Saturdays and Sundays because we don’t have enough employees,” said Michelle Epperson, manager of Subway in New London. “It just seems that people don’t want to work, and we just don’t have enough people who do.”
Epperson said they, like many other restaurants around the region, have been closing at least one day a week in order to make sure their employees have a day off.
“We want to make sure that we don’t overwork anyone,” she said, adding they did finally find a few new hires that will begin training shortly. For Epperson’s location the problem has only been ongoing for a month or so, but other stores have felt the effects of the shortage for much longer.
Sharon Hicks has been the manager at the Junction Convenience Center since 1980 and has never experienced the kind of employee shortage she sees now. Hicks said although the store has needed more help since the pandemic started, they have stayed open.
“Us older people here are working all the time,” she said, adding that other businesses have had good, long-time employees walk off the job because they are overworked and overwhelmed from not enough help.
The trickle down effect from nationwide employee shortages is something Hicks said her store suffers from due to suppliers that deliver to them from around the country.
“We are dealing with shortages in the supply chains and everything else, because they don’t have enough employees nationwide to run factories,” she said.
Frito Lay recently returned from an employee strike at their factory in Topeka, Kansas, where 500 workers left the job due to 80-hour work weeks. They have now returned with the promise of higher pay and at least one day off per week.
“You can’t get stuff unloaded from China in San Francisco because they have no loaders to unload them,” Hicks said. “I’ve never seen this in my life.”
Corey Mehaffy, Executive Director of Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council, said the shortage is especially happening in the service industries. If it continues in the long run, he is concerned about the fiscal health of local businesses.
“Businesses right now are working more hours than they ever have while making less money than they ever have. Margins are always tight in rural areas but they are extremely tight right now,” he said. “It is hard enough to recruit businesses to a rural area, and we certainly don’t want to lose the ones we already have.”
Statistics from the Department of Higher Education show that participation in the workforce is now approximately 63%. Mehaffy said there are currently 10 million job openings nationwide while pre-pandemic job openings were at 4 million.
“So, there is an entire segment in the job force that has been missing in traditional workforce numbers for a number of years,” he said.
Mehaffy believes the special funding available for unemployment during the pandemic has contributed to the current shortage, but that other factors are also at play when it comes to the lack of people applying to work in the service industry. Some of the unemployment numbers stem from what is known as the gig economy, which refers to project-based or freelance work.
“More people are now running businesses out of their homes or out of their garage — Uber drivers for example,” he said. “There is kind of a whole segment that’s not accounted for right now because they are not unemployed, they just aren’t working in the traditional workforce.”
Cory Fry, owner of the Junction Restaurant in Perry, said he is dealing with a lot of no-call-no-shows, otherwise he has enough help. He said another problem for the Junction is that there is a group of employees who want to work more hours but aren’t of legal age to do so.
His 14 and 15-year old employees are not allowed to work past 7 p.m. from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and from Memorial Day to Labor day they cannot work past 9 p.m. due to Missouri state law. This puts a strain on the business and employees who are scheduled with the kids, especially for a restaurant where the peak time of service is the same time they are leaving.
“They want to work and their parents say they are okay with them staying, but it doesn’t matter because if I ever get audited then I would be in trouble,” he said. “I hate it for the kids because they get here at 4 or 4:30 after school, and are only getting 2 or 3 hours on their paycheck per day.”
Fry supports his school-aged employees in their studies, and wants to help them succeed.
“If any kid was struggling with school we would try to help them and tutor them,” he said, “Or we would tell them that until your grades are raised — you will still have your job — but you just can’t work until then. You’ve got to get your high school diploma.”
Fry believes that the number of hours students under 16 should work is a decision between the student, parents, and the employer. He took the situation to Missouri Rep. Chad Perkins, who represents the 40th District. Perkins has now enlisted the Missouri Restaurant Association to draft a bill making the work hours of the 16 and under group up to the parents.
“If a potential employee, their parents, and their employer come together and have an agreement then why would the state be involved in the first place? It should be between them,” Perkins said. “This is a decision for parents and not for the state.”
Perkins believes the bill will have multiple benefits especially during the current employee crisis and he will support it.
“The fact is both locally and nationally — everywhere — people are hiring and there is help wanted everywhere. If you don’t have a job at this point in time it is because you have chosen not to get a job,” he said. “So it is great that young folks want a job.”
Perkins expects that the bill will be presented in January and he will put his full support behind it, if it’s properly drafted without unexpected additions.
As for the local employee shortages, Epperson is optimistic that her new employees will offer much relief to the other workers at the New London location, and while Hicks has not had any new hires, she is confident that the Junction Convenience Center will remain open.