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Local restaurant owner Rick Tropiano says he has had to cut hours and may close his restaurant on Mondays. 

“By the end of the week, most of my kitchen staff and some of the servers are very exhausted and on overtime and that makes it more dif­ficult to operate prof­itably,” said Tropiano, who owns and operates Johnny T’s Bistro. 

The restaurant is already closed on Sundays.

Econ­o­mists have dubbed the national labor shortage affecting busi­nesses like Tropiano’s, “The Great Resignation.” 

According to sta­tistics from Sta­tista, a company pro­viding sta­tistics for market and con­sumer data, 4.4 million Amer­icans vol­un­tarily left their jobs in Sep­tember of 2021. That number rep­re­sents an all-time high and has resulted in restaurant owners strug­gling to find employees willing to work. 

“Everyone that comes in to get hired or get ori­en­tated, they don’t come back, or they claim COVID. So we’re still short­handed,” said Jordan Oliver, a shift manager at the Hillsdale Wendy’s. 

The labor shortage began in March 2020 when the number of people quitting their jobs jumped dras­ti­cally, according to Statista.

“Before COVID every­thing was great. We had people here, it was nothing like it is now,” Oliver said.

According to Gary Wolfram, pro­fessor of political economy at Hillsdale College, there seem to be several factors at work. Gov­ernment stimulus checks and unem­ployment have meant that Amer­icans can get paid without working. Schools switched to online learning during the pan­demic, which meant many parents had to stay home with their kids. Addi­tionally, the concern of con­tracting COVID-19 while working has meant many people quit their jobs for health reasons. 

“Nobody has a really good expla­nation about what is hap­pening,” Wolfram said.

The shortage has espe­cially affected sectors where work is in-person and wages are lower, espe­cially hos­pi­tality and the restaurant industry. 

“You’re seeing a response to that in terms of higher wages, you drive by and you can see McDonald’s is offering $15 an hour and signing bonuses are every­where,” Wolfram said. “The market has been responding.” 

Small-business owners like Tropiano have felt the affect of the market response while seeking to hire employees at a fair wage while remaining profitable. 

“I per­sonally feel that it has really affected people’s way of thinking of what their wages should be,” Tropiano said.

Employers who would like to offer higher wages for full-time adult workers can’t because younger employees who are only available to work part-time also want more pay, Tropiano said. 

“It’s very dif­ficult to find adults that are over the age of 18 to want to apply to work full time or part time,” Tropiano said.

This severe labor shortage has proven to be a unique expe­rience for local business owners.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business at various levels since 1983,” Tropiano said. “I’ve expe­ri­enced times of inflation and times of high unem­ployment and times of modest pros­perity, and Hillsdale has always been a bit slower than the rest of the country in terms of economy.” 

Labor par­tic­i­pation rates, or the per­centage of people actively looking for a job or working in the labor force, have always fluc­tuated. The sudden plunge of these rates has econ­o­mists con­cerned, Wolfram said. 

Labor par­tic­i­pation rates in the U.S. were 61.6% in October 2021, according to Sta­tista. That number is down from 63.1% in 2019. In Michigan, the rate is 59.3%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, ranking the state 41st in the nation.

“We’ve not had people quitting their jobs at any­where near the rate we’ve had, so it’s been a unique expe­rience,” Wolfram said. “That’s why there’s uncer­tainty about what’s going on here.” 

In July, the gov­ernment began to cut unem­ployment ben­efits. As vac­ci­nation rates increase and Amer­icans are no longer getting paid not to work, many hoped that workers would re-enter the labor force. 

“You would expect to see an increase in the number of people working,” Wolfram said. “The oppor­tunity cost of staying home is now higher.”

In addition to changing atti­tudes about wages, Wolfram believes that the labor shortage could change atti­tudes about the necessity of getting a job.

“You may be seeing a movement towards people who decide that they are willing to accept a lesser lifestyle but work fewer hours. That could be what is going on as well,” he said. 

Changing atti­tudes towards work may espe­cially affect house­holds that had two people in the labor force. 

“His­tor­i­cally you had a stay-at-home mom. There’s a question of whether the pref­erence for that lifestyle is going to move back because we had this interim,” Wolfram said. 

The shortage has meant busi­nesses have had to be resilient and employees and owners have had to work together. 

“We help each other, even I work and help them out. So we kind of make it work the best we can,” said Adam Rocha, owner of El Cerrito. 

Tropiano said he has turned to his faith.

“Our goal in the long term is to stay viable and stay pros­perous and to employ people and build rela­tion­ships,” he said. “So I look at any of these problems that we’ve had since even the beginning of COVID, and my faith in God is bigger than all these problems. If he wants it to work, even I can’t screw it up.”