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Local Businesses Desperate for Employees as Summer Begins

Associated Press

What’s great news for Utah is not so great for local employers, who are struggling to keep their doors open during a worker shortage. 

May 2021 unemployment statewide was 2.7%. For many local businesses ramping up as summer crowds descend, the booming economy has meant literally shutting their doors because they can’t find staff to hire.

Silver Star Café posted on Instagram last week that it had to close for a lunch service due to lack of employees. The post ended with a plea for cooks and dishwashers. In Heber, the OG Café had to suspend dinner service this week because the owner had been working 100 hours a week and needed a break.

In Park City’s Old Town, Este Pizza owner Josh Davenport said he had to close two nights a week this month for the first time ever.

And at Heber’s wildly popular Dairy Keen, owner Jan Mawhinney-Olpin said she’s never seen anything like it – and her family has owned Dairy Keen for 75 years.

"You know, getting staff is really quite difficult right now. We are 25 people short. We have upped our wages; anybody breathing, we would love to hire them. My brother and sister and I are working between 16 and 18 hours a day, just to make it work, just to be there and be supportive. Customers want ice cream and we're there to give it to them."

The stakes are high for food service businesses. At a store filled with dry goods, if no one shows up for work, the T-shirts will be fine. But a walk-in fridge filled with expensive, perishable food is different. Restaurants have high operating costs and low profit margins. Food that can’t be cooked and served is money into the garbage.

Minimum wage in Utah is $7.25 an hour. But restaurant owners and managers interviewed for this report said they pay much more.

Ian Pope is manager of 5Seeds in Park City. He said servers there start at $17.50 and hour plus a guaranteed minimum of several dollars more per hour in tips. Cooks start at $22 an hour and also receive some tips. Pope said they’re always hiring.

Business at 5Seeds has been so hopping that staff didn’t get their usual shoulder season break after a busy winter, and Pope said the crowds have made customer service a challenge.

"Customer service is absolutely everything. And that people coming in to Park City just don't take into consideration the staffing levels and what we're going through. They expect the service to be absolutely perfect every single time, and there was a good four-week stretch there, maybe even longer, that every single day we were understaffed. It does hurt when you get a bad review because of service. A, it's because the staff is so tired sometimes they can always put on a smiley face and be sad and B, sometimes our staffing levels were not what we needed them to be."

At Dairy Keen, Mowhinney-Olpin pays teenagers $11 to start, and $12 on extra busy days. Adults start at $13 an hour, with extra pay on busy days.

Even with pay well above minimum wage, people aren’t applying for jobs. Some employers said they’ve heard that federal stimulus checks are factoring in to people not returning to work. Those payments are set to end this week, which might help ease the crunch.

Davenport at Este Pizza, starts kitchen employees at $14-$18 an hour depending on experience. Servers start at $7-$10 plus tips that can double that rate. He and others said paying more is the only answer – though it will drive up consumer costs. He also said his labor shortage has been eased by foreign workers coming on J1 visas.

"We're starting to come out of it and that's only because of the J1 program for people abroad coming here to work. Romanian people and some people from Peru are coming in the next couple of weeks and stuff, but that's been the only saving grace. I know a few of them are living in the hostel next door to us. I know they're all sharing pretty small apartments so it's affordable."

In the Wasatch Back, even people making triple minimum wage thanks to tip income can often not afford to live anywhere near where they work. That contributes to turnover as the sheer logistics of commuting to a job, or several jobs, can be overwhelming. And rising gas prices drive up commute costs.

There’s also the issue of how hard the work is, Mawhinney-Olpin said.

"Certainly we have some guests who are just amazing. But there are a lot of people who are not so nice. They have a lot of teenagers in tears a lot because of customers yelling at them for the silliest of things, you know you forgot my straw. I'm going to get on social media and tell the world how you think. Give me straw

With no easy answers in sight, those who oversee hospitality businesses are asking customers to be empathetic, to notice when a business is slammed, and to realize workers are doing the best they can.