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By DAVID CAMPHOUSE
Many food service businesses and retail establishments in Pike County have expressed frustration at a lack of employees willing to work at their businesses.
Pittsfield’s Nucci’s Pasta House recently notified the public on Facebook that the business has decided to close its outdoor seating area, because the business is short-staffed.
“We’re down a few employees,” Nucci’s owner Robert Brewer said. “We did have to close down the patio. With deer season coming on, it only gets busier – which is good.”
Brewer said that he doesn’t believe the labor shortage is being caused by a population unwilling to work. Instead, Brewer believes that many small businesses are being outcompeted for workers by larger businesses able to pay higher wages – including the Ascend cannabis growing facility in Barry.
“Everybody wants to blame the government and say ‘people don’t want to work,’” Brewer said. “I don’t think they’re sitting in their houses. A lot of them are in Barry at the pot plant. They’re hiring left and right. Why would you come here to work for $11 or $12, when you could be making $18 there?”
Brewer says the presence of Ascend in Pike County is good for workers and good for the community, but he says it puts stress on small businesses fighting to survive financially.
“They do pay well,” Brewer said. “It’s good for the workers and good for Barry. It does create a manpower situation, though, in our small community. Small businesses can’t compete with the big guys.”
Barry City Administrator Jeff Hogge said that he has heard from Barry small businesses struggling with staffing issues.
“I’ve been hearing from a couple of our restaurants – Bainbridge Street Café and Wendy’s – about staffing issues,” Hogge said. “And I’m hearing Dollar General is possibly having trouble.”
Hogge indicated that the tight labor market is putting pressure on small businesses to raise wages to stay competitive in the labor market.
“If you aren’t able or are unwilling to raise wages to the level of some of these other businesses, you’re having trouble,” Hogge said.
Rising wages, according to Hogge, have encouraged some restaurants to look at passing costs on to the consumer.
“As a restaurant, though, you can’t raise your prices until nobody comes into your business,” Hogge said.
According to Hogge, pressure on Pike County’s tight labor market will only increase as the Ascend plant expands this year.
“Right now they’re in the neighborhood of about 320 employees,” Hogge said. “They’re hoping to get to 400 by the end of the year. They are real close to opening up the phase two building.”
Tim Briscoe, who distributes Pepsi products to food service establishments throughout the region, said the hospitality industry worker shortage extends beyond Pike County.
“There’re signs about being short staffed at every restaurant,” Briscoe said. “Every restaurant over in Hannibal is cutting back hours.”
Briscoe cited ongoing competition for employees from other large regional employers – including DOT Foods and Kohl Wholesale – as a source of additional stress on the tight labor market.
Meanwhile, some small business owners in other sectors have reported they have continued to attract and retain quality workers, even while many restaurants and retail establishments struggle to find and keep workers.
“It hasn’t been an issue for us,” John Petty & Sons Construction’s Jonas Petty said. “We’ve been very fortunate. I have heard of it being an issue for the construction industry as a whole.”
Petty went on to say that his business has actually gained employees displaced by vaccine requirements at healthcare industry employers.
“Workers affected by the vaccine mandate have come to work for us,” Petty said.
Peter Wright of Pittsfield’s Wright Place Auto Body says he focuses hard on retaining the workers he has to avoid staffing issues.
“I tend to try to keep people,” Wright said. “If you have a good employee, you try to keep them. A couple of our guys have been here for probably 15 years.”
Nucci’s Brewer went on to stress the importance of civility on the part of customers while restaurants and other businesses continue to struggle to staff themselves at adequate levels.
“We’re asking people to be considerate,” Brewer said. “Not just here. Not just at Gianni’s or any other restaurant, but everywhere.”