KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- On Tuesday Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced additional unemployment benefits offered by the federal government would no longer be disbursed by the Missouri Department of Labor. He framed it as a way to fix the problem of employers unable to find enough people to staff their business at full scale. The change will take effect on June 12.
“For a lot of folks going back to work doesn’t make very much sense when you’re making just as much or more on unemployment benefits as you were at your job,” said UMKC Associate Professor of Finance Nathan Mauck. “So relatively low wage jobs especially are going to have a hard time getting people to come back.”
KCTV5 spoke with managers at several area restaurants, one of the industries struggling to find staff.
One Kansas City restaurant manager, who didn’t want to be named for fear of alienating people, said the change couldn’t come soon enough. He has been frustrated reaching out to former staff for re-hire to be told they are “taking some time for themselves” while collecting unemployment, what Missouri offers combined with an extra $300 per week from the federal government.
Another manager, who took a less strident tone, said he welcomes the change, hopeful it will bring some people back into the job market, but also knows the trouble hiring is about more than people sitting home on the dole.
“The pandemic did two things,” said Charlie Hooper’s general manager George Clarke. “It took away people that didn’t want to work that much, but it also had a lot of people that kind of took that down time to kind of explore new avenues and new careers.”
These aren’t people still collecting unemployment, but people who tried something new when the restaurant business was hamstrung by restrictions, then realized they liked their new lifestyle or were gun shy after what they’d been through, afraid of the future if they returned.
“This is a great career. It’s a great job to have, and you can make great money doing it, but if the floor falls out underneath you, what are you going to do?” he said of the thought process he’s heard from staff who’ve left.
Austin Castro and Nikki Kretz are prime examples. The couple worked at Char Bar in Westport for more than five years.
“The pandemic definitely took a toll on us. Everything shut down, so we kind of looked for other opportunities to kind of better ourselves,” said Castro.
They collected enhanced unemployment for several months when the business was closed. They went back when it re-opened, but then it closed again for the winter.
“I really thought that I couldn’t get a better job without a degree,” said Kretz, noting she didn’t think the professional world would accept her green hair and tattoos.
They didn’t realize what else was out there until the uncertainty of the industry forced them to look elsewhere.
“Working at an establishment when you don’t know when or if they’re going to close their doors or not,” said Castro about what pushed them.
They found jobs with Farmers Insurance. They both work from home. They spend more time with their dog. They have steady hours, steady pay, and a steady work pace. They don’t make what they did on good nights as servers, but they aren’t working until 3 a.m. and the pay is the same every day, no more up and down.
“When it’s good, you’re making so much money - $500 in your pocket that night. But what happens if your manager doesn’t like you, so you don’t get those good shifts, so you’re stuck on lunch shifts making $20 a shift?” explained Kretz. “And then it’s the pandemic, so you don’t know if you’re going to walk into work and be told to go home the next day.”
Castro said he misses the hustle and bustle and the social aspect of the job, but post-pandemic he had to deal with confrontational customers balking at mask rules. He just got tired of the grind. Also, the forced time off gave them time to reflect on their lifestyle.
“It’s been a lot of fun, for sure,” said Kretz of hospitality industry work, “but you know, a lot of restaurants every night after work, you go out for drinks. That’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of bad decisions that could possibly happen.”
Of course, it depends on the restaurant.
Clarke said most people he’s met want to work. It gives them purpose. Others, he knows, have been taking advantage of the extra unemployment benefit. He hopes to get a boost from the expanded labor pool he thinks the change will bring, but that’s not the end of it.
“For me it’s, how do we get people to continue to maintain this as a career in this industry or where do we pull new labor pools from?” Clarke said of the next steps.
It’s an answer he doesn’t have…yet.
“When employers say they are unable to find workers, it’s another way of saying that they are not able to find workers who will work for the wages they want them to,” said Mauck, “so to get people into the workforce, you can always just pay people a higher wage or offer a signing bonus.”
If that happens, Mauck said, it will raise prices for customers as well.