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Utah restaurants can't find people to hire, and here's why

Posted at 10:32 PM, May 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-12 20:08:30-04

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah restaurants get ready to open back up to full capacity, they are struggling to find enough people to fill their staff.

While some might place blame on unemployment checks or the pandemic, those in the industry say the real reason isn't about wages.

READ: Utah economist says enhanced benefits are just one part of a complex jobs picture

The Tuesday night crowd began to thicken just before 6 p.m. at Purgatory, a bar and restaurant in Salt Lake City. The tables are spaced far apart, and the bar is still operating at about 70 percent capacity.

The staff, however, tend to run at 110 percent when the rush hits.

"When we do get busy, we're just running around non-stop, back of the house, front of the house," said Hiro Tagai, the restaurant director with Sapa Investment Group, which owns Purgatory. "We have managers helping bus. We have cooks running food."

He explained that they're trying to hire more employees, but it's been a struggle to even get people to apply.

"About 80 to 90 percent don't even show up to their interviews, so that poses another issue there," Tagai said.

Sapa Investment Group (SIG) owns seven eating establishments, including bars, restaurants, and a bakery. Tagai said they have 45 job openings right now.

SIG raised wages during the pandemic, Tagai said. They also didn't lay off any staff, instead offering work for all employees who wanted to stay.

Some left, he said, and collected unemployment.

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Recently, SIG hosted a job fair that they advertised heavily in the community.

"We did have a job fair. I think we had about one person show up," Tagai said with a chuckle.

Yep. One.

This situation is becoming the norm for restaurants across the valley.

"Every day I am slammed with calls from restaurant owners and bar owners, that are desperate employees," said Michele Corigliano, Executive Director for the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association.

She said restaurants are finding that their regular way of looking for employees just isn't working. Even if they are allowed to open to full capacity, she indicated that restaurants just can't accommodate that many customers.

Some might wonder if the pandemic lay-offs and unemployment payments proved too enticing, drawing people away.
"Remarkably, a lot of people think that it's the unemployment. I personally have not heard that being the case," Corigliano said. "Of course there are people that are staying and utilizing the unemployment. But I don't think that's the overwhelming issue."

Department of Workforce Services (DWS) unemployment filing statistics seem to back that up.

According toDWS stats on their website, most people who initially filed for unemployment during the pandemic worked in the Accomodation and Food Services industry.

But the latest unemployment numbers show that most people with insured unemployment right now came from the Admin Support/Waste Management/Remediation industry.

Accommodation and Food Services is now sixth on the list, under Mining, Construction, Real Estate and Rental and Leasing, and Wholesale Trade.

Accommodation and Food Services currently makes up 2.1 percent, whereas Admin Support/Waste Management/Remediation is more than double that at 4.7 percent.

So what is the overwhelming issue?

First, Corigliano described how the restaurant staffing shortage started before the pandemic.

She said in 2020, 150 applications were filed for new restaurants in Salt Lake County, but there aren't enough people going into the industry to work at them.

READ: Utah Latinx businesses grow during COVID-19 pandemic

It seems that people are choosing different careers instead.

"I just think some people have either moved on and there's just not enough people entering the industry as new," she said.

Tagai can testify to that. He said one of their chefs had a baby, and during the pandemic realized she wanted to be home with her child more. She left to become a stay-at-home mom.

He talked about how one bartender left the industry for a job in the office sector.

"They've gone to work for Amazon, or Instacart-- go into different sectors, altogether," he said.

Corigliano is hoping they can recruit fresh blood. She said the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association is hosting a job fair on May 19 at Boondocks in Draper from 2 to 6 p.m.

Click here for information on the job fair.

She said they contacted high schools and colleges, as well as culinary schools to try to encourage more people to think of the restaurant industry for a career.

Corigliano is also encouraging parents to get their high schoolers to apply to restaurant and food service jobs.

As someone who has worked in the industry herself, Corigliano loves it.

"It's fun and it's always moving, and it's high energy and you make great money," she said.

Tagai said that SIG is also planning another job fair.

Until more employees pour in, he's hoping customers can be patient no matter where they eat out at.

"Everybody in town is short-handed," he said.

Short-handed, but still ready to serve.