In early April, local restaurateur Rehan Mir posted a photo of a sign he made on the Facebook page of his restaurant, Taco La Barra, on Woodruff Road.
“We are short-staffed,” the sign read. “Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore.”
In his 46 years as a restaurant owner, Mir said he has never experienced such a tough time finding workers. It’s forced owners like him to pick up the slack, taking orders, operating the phone system, wiping down tables, jumping from job to job all day long.
“I’m 63 years old and I got 12,000 steps yesterday working from noon to midnight,” Mir said. “Everyone is running ragged. It’s always been a tough industry but this is the first time I’ve seen anything this bad.”
Mir is not alone.
Every morning after dropping her kids off at school, Julia Scholz — who owns Stella’s Southern Brasserie with her husband, John — gets online and searches for employees. Even when she does get applications, she knows not to get her hopes up.
“People are walking into restaurants now and seeing empty tables and they’ll ask, ‘Hey, why can’t I get seated?’ They don’t realize we might not have servers to serve you or cooks to cook your food,” Scholz said.
For every 10 interviews she schedules, she said she’s lucky if one person shows up. On the rare occasion that she does bring on a new staff member, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually follow through. More than once, a new hire hasn’t shown up for their first day.
“It’s incredibly discouraging and time-wasting,” she said.
Both Scholz and Mir believe part of the problem is they’re competing with pandemic-era unemployment benefits. Right now, South Carolinians are eligible for $626 each week in combined state and federal benefits as long as they offer proof they have been applying to at least two jobs per week.
Mir said the system is being exploited.
“These [people] just don’t want to work,” he said. “I get at least five applicants a week and when I call them, they never pick up. No one is actually checking if these people have been offered jobs and turned them down so they can keep getting their checks from the government.”
In response to the labor shortage, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently announced the state will terminate all federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits on June 30, reducing weekly benefits by $300 per person.
“What was intended to be a short-term financial assistance for the vulnerable and displaced during the height of the pandemic has turned into a dangerous federal entitlement,” McMaster said.
But critics have said the move from McMaster will only hurt families that are still rebuilding after the financial hardships of the pandemic. The South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce estimates the state will miss out on upwards of a half-billion dollars by cutting benefits before their original expiration date in September.
In the meantime, restaurants owners are having to adapt to survive.
At Taco La Barra, servers who once made $2.13/hour plus tips are now making $10/hour plus tips, with insurance for full-time employees.
Stella’s recently announced it is no longer opening on Tuesdays, a decision Scholz said was made to give its skeleton crew a break.
“The staff I do have in my kitchen is getting so burned out from 14-hour days and it’s not fair to keep them working these crazy hours,” she said. “None of us wanted to close on Tuesdays, but I felt we were going to lose the good employees we do have because they’re so stressed out and exhausted.”
Other owners like Nick Thomas, who runs Automatic Taco in The Commons, have begun training staff to perform multiple roles at once.
“All the cooks now have to know how to use the POS (point-of-sale) system, we’ve brought some front-of-the-house people in the back to cook, and we replaced all our food runners with pagers that buzz so the customers just come up and get more involved in the process,” Thomas said.
But even these adjustments can’t fully account for what Thomas calls “an insanely bad job market.”
“We’ve cast such a wide net and you still wind up with nothing,” he said. “I think this issue will be like a latent effect where it’ll take maybe six months to get everyone working again.”
Until then, Thomas, Scholz and Mir all asked the public for patience as they try to meet the challenge.
“I just want to say we care a lot about the customer’s experience,” Scholz said. “I don’t think there’s enough awareness in the public about how tough it is right now.”