Help wanted: Restaurant owners in St. George struggle to fill positions as economy grows

ST. GEORGE — According to a report released by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, unemployment across the state of Utah is at a lean 2.8%. That’s significantly lower than the national average of 6.1%, but is it all good?

Ted Molina, manger at the Bluff Street Arby’s, in St. George, Utah, May 2 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

The report said that Utah has added an estimated 35,600 jobs statewide. As tourists feel free to travel to the area again, restaurants are seeing more customers than they have for the past year. The low unemployment rate may explain why local business owners, especially restaurants, are struggling to hire new employees.

But those doing the hiring, like Ted Molina, who manages the Arby’s on Bluff Street, said they see it differently.

“I think we’re competing with the federal government,” Molina told St. George News. “Unemployed people are making more money from unemployment than they would if they were working.”

However, those supplemental benefits now have an expiration date. Gov. Spencer Cox said in a press release dated May 12 that pandemic unemployment benefits, including the $300 weekly stimulus payment, will end June 26.

On May 10, President Joe Biden responded to complaints that his policies are encouraging hordes of people to refuse jobs in lieu of collecting unemployment checks.

DeDe Orton tries to entice applicants by greeting them hand-written message in St. George, Utah, May 14, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“The law is clear: if you are receiving unemployment benefits and you’re offered a suitable job, you can’t refuse that job and just keep getting the unemployment benefits,” he said. “The people who claim Americans won’t work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people.”

Lecia Langston, senior economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, agreed with Biden’s assessment of the situation and offered her own thoughts as to why local businesses face an uphill battle in this jobs market.

“I don’t know if there’s a such thing as a labor shortage,” Langston said. “There’s a wage shortage. I know it’s not a popular opinion, but if businesses want to find workers in a market like this, you’ve got to offer higher wages.”

Maybe that’s why Molina increased pay for new hires from $11 to $14 an hour. Yet, Molina said it hasn’t worked so far, and that his situation is becoming dire.

“Because we can’t hire anybody, we had to bring in people from other states,” Molina said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to stay open.”

In the meantime, Molina said, suppliers are raising their prices, and there’s a nationwide shortage of items like cups and wrappers. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also an increase in consumption, Molina said.

“We’re busy, but we can’t even open the lobby,” he said. “There’s all this consuming but not enough production. I don’t know how much longer we can go on like this.”

A lone server contends with the breakfast rush at DeDe’s in St. George, Utah, May 19, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

DeDe Orton, who owns and runs DeDe’s on Dixie Drive, faces a similar struggle. Orton said she opened her first restaurant in Cedar City. She was there for five years before her rent was raised. Then, eight years ago, she moved her business to St. George.

“We love it here,” Orton said. “And people love our restaurant.”

As breakfast and lunch crowds have steadily grown over the past year, Orton said she decided she needed to hire more cooks and servers.

“I’m not even getting applicants right now,” she said.

Orton also blamed unemployment benefits and a general lack of interest in work. But Langston said the data paints a different picture.

“There just isn’t a large army of Utahns on unemployment benefits,” Langston said. “We’ve gone from roughly 140,000 filing for extended benefits a year ago. There’s around 30,000 today.”

She said economic growth, which stands at about 5%, is outpacing what the labor force can accommodate. This puts job-seekers in the driver’s seat.

“Which is why you can’t drive through St. George without seeing ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” Langston said. “But if you pay the right wages, you will get job-seekers.

While Molina has been forced to bring workers from Washington and California to keep his doors open, Orton looks to her family.

“My husband cooks for me,” Orton said. “My daughters serve, and my 80-year-old mom helps out a couple of days a week.”

In addition, Orton said, one of her best customers, Mike McFarland, offered to pitch in.

“I saw that they needed help,” McFarland said. “I saw the care they put into their food and their service.”

“I offered to pay him, but he won’t take money,” Orton said.

“I eat my mistakes,” McFarland joked.

Right now, Orton said the restaurant business is more competitive than ever. She said she pays better than most, and offers weekly pay, but she can’t figure out how to get more applicants through the door.

“It feels like the last man standing,” Orton said. “I’m lucky to have such a great family, and they’re willing to help out. Because of that, I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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