‘It’s never been this bad’: Rochester businesses still hurting from COVID pandemic

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Labor Day 2021 was a reminder of just how much the workforce has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After more than a year of economic hardship and lifestyle changes, businesses are still struggling to hire employees.

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit.

“It’s never been this bad. There’s been many situations where I would have fired many people in many situations… where now over the last, you know, 700 days, if somebody tells me they’re not coming in, it’s just they’re not coming in, that’s end of story,” said Ross Mueller with the Mueller Restaurant Group. 

Because of staffing shortages, some restaurants have had to close earlier than usual or close completely on certain days. Drew Nye, who co-owns Roam Cafe, said this can be frustrating for customers. 

“If you go to three different restaurants and they’re all closed, and then the fourth place you go is kind of a little understaffed and really busy…there’s kind of already some frustration going into the situation and then you get there, and it’s gonna be a 45 minute wait on top of, ‘we’ve been looking for a place to eat,’” Nye said. 

To help with the shortages, restaurants have had to make some changes to help attract and retain employees. Including offering signing bonuses and increasing pay. 

“What people are getting paid has gone up a lot through COVID through the staffing challenges. So that is going to be a long lasting benefit,” Nye said. “Obviously we want we want everyone to make a fair wage and COVID and the staffing challenges have helped make that a reality.”

 Other restaurants have broadened their hiring pool to help get more workers, which includes putting more effort into training new employees. 

“To be an employee within our company, you had to have certain abilities and this and that, whereas now, if you’re brand new to the business, we’re open to training you,” Mueller said.

At the restaurants Mueller owns, they have seen teachers and nurses apply for a job and work a few days a week this summer.

“What we’re seeing a lot right now is our staff members actually have full time jobs, so they are teachers or like I said, they’re nurses or some type of that field where they’re either off for the summer or they have afternoon off or any type of situation where they’re just picking up a couple shifts a week,” Mueller said. 

On Sunday, federal unemployment benefits expired in New York. Restaurants hope this will encourage more people to start applying for jobs. 

“I would be very surprised if the pool of workers didn’t increase substantially with the end of the additional benefits,” Nye said. 

Mueller said he too anticipates seeing an increase in the labor force, but he really doesn’t know what could happen. 

“I’m a little nervous on that. Honestly, I wonder if people have shifted gears on their job choices. But the other thing is that we have to worry about as we’re also going into a slow season here…so the weather is going to change and the patios are going to close, and so we have to forecast that as well,” he said. 

While some people may return to work, many businesses know some people are worried about returning to work with COVID-19. 

“A person with some underlying conditions is basically risking their life every time they leave their house. They’ve got to figure out, is it worth going to work? Or should I stay home and keep myself and my family safe?,” said Mike Bader, the Business Manager of IBEW Local Union 86.

Bader said he believes one way to get more people to go to work is to pay more. 

“We are a union, we strive for better pay, better benefits, and things like that where our members… they’re rewarded for going to work,” Bader said. “If you do the math, it’s very hard to raise a family, or even if you don’t have a family, being single on $15 an hour is crazy in today’s day and age.”

As restaurants and businesses navigate the next few months, they are asking customers to be patient.

“I hope that everybody’s more understanding. Realize that this industry has changed and bear with us because eventually we will push through it,” Mueller said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s our industry or somebody else. They all have the understanding. We all have to be in it together.”

In August, the job market only grew by 235,000 jobs, according to the labor department. The number was much weaker than expected.

Overall the nation’s unemployment rate went down to 5.2%. New York’s stands around 7.6%.

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