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Iowa restaurants explore options while struggling with employee shortages

Last updated on May 1, 2021

More and more Iowans have received COVID-19 vaccines, and many of them have headed back to public spaces, including restaurants.

Still, restaurants are struggling.

“With the increase in vaccinations and the warming weather and the opening of patios, people are coming back out, and they’re coming back out in big numbers,” Iowa Restaurant Association President and CEO Jessica Dunker said. “And at this point in time, the biggest hindrance to our ability to recover the losses caused by the pandemic is not customers coming out, but it’s actually finding the employees we need to meet the demand of being able to deliver the service that we were delivering before.”

Dunker said that last year “almost half” of the restaurant industry’s workforce was laid off last April because of the loss of the ability to provide on premise dining in restaurants and bars, and many restaurants continue to “self-impose” dining room closures and capacity limits because they don’t have the staff needed.

To try to address the understaffing, restaurants are providing a “huge increase” in starting wages, signing bonuses for experienced workers, and additional flexibility in hours and vacation benefits.

“If you just want some ‘fun money,’ and you say, ‘Look, I can work Saturday afternoon and Tuesday night,’ – if you’ll come and you’ll do the job, we’re finding that people are really open to that,” Dunker said. “It’s a win for people who do or want to work in our industry.”

Restaurants are also trying to “not burn out” existing employees by dropping lunch or breakfast service or closing a couple days a week “just to give the staff a break.” Grouped restaurants are rotating closure dates and moving staff from location to location to meet consumer need.

Dunker said that since the customer service and management skills that restaurant employees have and develop are transferable to other industries, the workers have found success in moving to customer service roles in other industries such as banking and construction. Some workers have also been “making enough to be content for now” through unemployment benefits from both the state of Iowa and the federal government.

To assist restaurants and employees, Iowa Restaurant Association is conducting a “come back campaign.” The association has launched an industry-only job board and is promoting the wide range of careers available.

The U.S. Small Business Administration has announced its own measure to provide relief to restaurants: the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The fund of $28.6 billion is part of the American Rescue Plan. Women, veterans, and socially or economically disadvantaged individuals will receive priority for the first 21 days the program is open. After that, eligible applications will be funded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Registrations will begin at 10 a.m. Central Time April 30 for opening applications at 11 a.m. May 3. The online application for a share of $28.6 billion available through the American Rescue Plan will remain open until all funds are used by eligible establishments, which include restaurants, food stands, caterers, and bars. Bakeries, brewpubs, breweries, wineries, and inns with onsite sales to the public of at least 33% of gross receipts are also eligible.

This article was originally posted on Iowa restaurants explore options while struggling with employee shortages

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