Help wanted ASAP: Suburban business owners feel COVID-19 labor fallout

Business owners statewide can't wait for Friday, June 11, the magical day when Illinois' COVID-19 capacity restrictions are lifted, meaning more customers and a boost to the economy.

Too bad there might not be enough workers to serve those patrons.

"It's a real struggle and it seems the market's pretty much tapped out," Arlington Park General Manager Tony Petrillo said. The racetrack has over 100 open positions ranging from food servers to security, and despite raising wages by about 20% from 2019, Petrillo is hard-pressed to fill them.

"If we cannot hire a sufficient number of personnel to provide a safe environment and quality experience, we will have to limit capacity to levels at which we're able to hire people," Petrillo said.

There's little historical precedent for transitioning from a pandemic-inspired shutdown and recession to a boom economy, said Robert Bruno, a labor and employment relations professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Everybody is opening up and in a way we've never done in the past," he said. Employers "are not coming out slowly, incrementally out of the recession. They're looking to quickly get to what pre-COVID levels were. We're going from zero to 100."

Nationwide, job openings hit 8.1 million at the end of March, the highest point since December 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sectors with the most vacancies were hotel and food services, the bureau reported May 11.

Restaurateur George Kastanis counts his blessings he recently found a server to help wait tables at The Original Granny's in Wheeling.

"It was not easy but I got lucky and it's working," Kastanis said. "I'm trying to find a couple more (servers) because I'm trying to get the patio open."

For May 2020, the Illinois Department of Employment Security reported 738,500 jobs lost since May 2019, and an unemployment rate of 14.7%. Currently, unemployment is at 7.1% and there's a year-to-year gain of 410,600 jobs, the latest data from April shows.

But "there were millions of labor market connections broken during the pandemic and it takes time to get those connections resolved," Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning senior policy analyst Austen Edwards said.

Where are workers?

You can't point to a single cause for the millions of unfilled jobs, said Bruno, director of U of I's Labor Education Program.

But one factor is concern about contracting COVID-19. The U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey recently reported that about 3.5 million Americans or about 3.5% of those surveyed are worried about returning to work because of the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.

Another reason is the number of formerly employed women now at home looking after their kids. A Labor Education Program study found 40% of working moms in Illinois lost jobs or had to reduce hours when schools switched to remote learning, and child-care centers closed as the pandemic began spiraling in March 2020.

"A lot of those child-care slots are not coming back," Bruno said. "It's a big problem and we shouldn't ignore it."

At Scentcerely Yours in Geneva, owners Susi and Rob Brucato have up to five openings in production and customer relations at the candle and fragrance-making shop.

"It's very difficult to get people to even fill out an application," Susi Brucato said.

The couple had hoped to hire some stay-at-home moms. But COVID-19 scuttled those plans. "With kids being at home they weren't able to come in to work," she explained.

While Illinois is rounding a corner, more work remains to ensure a full economic recovery, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said.

"This is particularly true of hard-hit industries, such as accommodation, food service and entertainment, which may face a variety of barriers to ramping up staffing - including child care constraints and fears regarding health."

'Worst it's ever been'

Manufacturer FIC America Corp. has about 30 production jobs available from forklift drivers to machine operators, recruiter Susan Humphrey said. The company, which makes parts for the auto industry with locations in Carol Stream and Bloomingdale, pays 90% of health insurance and offers a 401(k) match and other perks.

But it's tough to fill those spots. "The expectations are incredibly high," Humphrey said. "People can be incredibly selective and choosy; there's too many jobs and not enough people."

Several employers theorized the extension of supplemental unemployment insurance of $300 a week to Sept. 6 is discouraging people from seeking jobs.

"I've been in management for 20 years and it's the worst it's ever been," Fox Valley Filter sales director Byron Gaylord said. The company that installs and maintains filters has 12 open positions, mainly in sales, customer service and administration.

"It's a struggle to find quality people. I've been flat-out told, 'I can make more money sitting at home,'" Gaylord said.

Garage Force of Naperville owner John Teuthorn has increased starting wages at his concrete floor coating company from $18 an hour to $20, but finding the right person "is hard now with unemployment so readily available. It's a lot more competitive as far as salary goes," Teuthorn said.

That argument is a hot-button issue in Washington, D.C., with many Republicans poking at President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan that provides a subsidy to continue health coverage for laid-off workers (COBRA) and the additional $300-a-week unemployment benefit.

"Is $300 really holding people back? Most economists would say 'no,'" Bruno said, adding the most hires in Illinois this April occurred in the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes low-paying food service jobs.

The reality is many jobseekers are looking for wages they can support a family on and benefits such as health care, vacation and retirement.

It's about "people making rational choices in the labor market," Bruno said. "'Why would I go work over there when I see there's a few dollars more available over here, and I feel I'll be better treated.'"

Biden said Friday the 5.8% unemployment rate was the lowest since the pandemic began. The $300 benefit expires in 90 days and "helped people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and who still may be in the process of getting vaccinated," he noted.

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Employees of Garage Force of Naperville work on a concrete floor. There are lots of jobs waiting, but it's difficult finding employees because of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, owners say. Courtesy of John Teuthorn
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