By Tyler Palicia
Rockbridge County employers are scrambling to find enough workers, prompting some to raise wages, while others have been forced to cut their hours and services.
The impact is seen all over Lexington. At CVS, a sign tells customers that the drive-thru pharmacy service is closed due to a lack of staff. A sign advertising job openings is taped to the front door of the Walkabout Outfitter on Main Street.
Prior to the pandemic, Southern Inn served customers dinner seven days a week and lunch five days a week. Now the Main Street Lexington restaurant is open only five days a week from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Owner George Huger needs 15 more employees. He increased wages for his 35 current workers. Dishwashers, who used to start at $8 to $9 per hour, now receive $12 to $15. Servers, who used to make $2.13 per hour, now make $3 to $4, plus tips.
“In 2021 and the first part of 2022, we did a lot of advertising, marketing, promoting ourselves in different ways, social media, radio, newspaper, hiring bonuses. I think we have tried almost every option we can to entice people to come to work,” Huger said. “We really just haven’t had success.”
It’s a national problem, fueled by a number of factors.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said this month that 2.75 million workers have left the labor force since February of 2020, the beginning of the pandemic.
Some of the labor shortage was expected as aging baby boomers hit retirement age. But the pandemic prompted more people to retire early. Women have left jobs because of a shortage of affordable child care. More workers are moving from job to job in search of higher wages. And less immigration has also contributed to the deficit.
Some people haven’t sought jobs because they received higher unemployment benefits, stimulus payments and child tax credits, according to the chamber report.
Ronald Caldwell-Andrews, manager of The Palms, said the Lexington restaurant has been understaffed since June of 2020. Since then, he has added a $250 signing bonus and boosted wages by up to $4, paying as much as $15 per hour for experienced employees. But he’s still having trouble hiring the last four workers needed to fully staff the restaurant.
“I’m not really sure the cause of the understaffing or the lack of people who want to work in a restaurant. Before Covid, it was never an issue. I’m not sure how the mentality changed,” Andrews said.
Chantal Smith, an assistant professor of economics at Washington and Lee University, believes that low wages have demoralized many service industry workers.
“The pandemic made it visible what it meant to be an essential worker,” Smith said. “Their wages didn’t reflect the fact that they were essential.”
But not all businesses in Lexington are short on labor. Paying higher wages seems to help some of them. Accacia Mullen, owner of Make it Sew on Main Street, said her five employees have been with her since before the pandemic. She pays them each a minimum of $15 per hour.
“Since my very first employee, I have hired employees at a good wage,” Mullen said.
To attract more help, W&L raised its minimum wage in July from $15.76 to $16.25 per hour for all dining services workers and custodians. Since then, the school has added 11 full-time and 45 part-time workers.
But some companies in the region are still paying their employees the minimum wage.
Christy Roberts, 25, spends 40 hours a week working the night shift at the Super 8 front desk. Roberts earns $11 per hour, lives with her parents and relies on Medicaid to cover bills related to her diabetes.
Roberts said she enjoys her job, despite the minimum wage. It helps that she’s a self-described “night owl.” Roberts said she wouldn’t want to leave her job because she feels loyalty toward her boss.
“Most of the other hotels pay more than minimum wage at this point. But I stay here because I have so, so many health problems, and my boss is really easy to work with,” Roberts said. “The only problem I have here beyond the wages is the fact that I don’t have really any kind of time off.”
Kristin McAllister works two jobs at the Quality Inn & Suites and the Econo Lodge. The 32-years-old single mother recently moved in with her aunt, which meant she had to give up her cats. Her daughter stays with a grandmother.
Her take-home pay is about $1,000 a week. After paying bills, she has little left to tackle her $20,000 of debt.
McAllister said she knows the fast food chains in Lexington are hiring people for better wages, but she prefers to stay off her feet due to health problems. And like Roberts, she enjoys her workplaces.
“I love the people that I work with and they are 95% of the reason why I stay here. Everybody is so sweet. They work hard,” McAllister said. “It’s the owners that just don’t care about us.”