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New employees appear hard to come by

Already stressed from working more than 40 hours in a single weekend and not having a day off in more than a month because she can’t get help, Benita Braaten looks down at her phone and sees a message with an explanation from one of her newest hires as to why they haven’t been to work lately; the text reads, “We moved to Sioux Falls.”

It’s an example of just one of the many reasons Braaten said she’s heard in the past year from people who only work a day or two before quitting without notice by simply not showing up. This forces her, as owner of A&W in Webster, to step in and do the job she hired them to do so she doesn’t add the stress to her remaining employee base.

“There’s just no care,” she said. “I have a really good core group... but all we do is train.”

That’s if, she said, she can even get anyone in to apply.

Braaten is not alone in this situation she says has been exacerbated by a global pandemic. “Help Wanted” signs are in windows of many businesses around the community as employers try to figure out how to entice people to come back to work.

“Honestly, if I were paid to stay home, I probably would too,” she said. Stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits, she believes are part of the reason people won’t come back to work. “It’s created another type of pandemic. It’s the ones who are left who suffer.”

Normally, Braaten said she would try to have 24 employees but said she’d be happy if she could get 18. As of last week, she had 11 plus three trainees.

Over the winter, during their slow time, Braaten said she had reached that 24-employee mark. But as soon as it started warming up and things started getting busy, she said all that extra help started quitting.

“I’ve never filled out so many unemployment forms for people who just walked out,” Braaten remarked. In the dozen years prior to 2020, Braaten said she’d filled out maybe three unemployment forms. Since the pandemic, however, she said she’s filled out more than 20.

Braaten said she’s always prided herself on how well she treats her employees.

“My staff does an incredible job. I try to take most of the stress on myself – I do not want to put that on my employees. It’s just a very hard time to own a small business right now,” she said. “I’m paying more and more and more just to get them to stay. It’s just hard. Everyone says it will get better but I just see it getting slowly worse.”

But Braaten said she’s convinced it’s not about the pay and that there’s more at play than a pandemic response. In general, she said she thinks there’s a shift in society where more and more people are lacking the social skills necessary for communicating face to face. She said it’s so much easier to quit via text message these days than to do it in-person. Braaten touched on the concept of customers having changed also, she said some being more demanding and rude than ever before. She said when customers yell at servers for mistakes, that gives those employees more of an incentive to quit than she can compensate for in wages.

“It’s hard to take the time with each customer we need to because we’re so short-staffed,” she said.

Braaten pointed to a corporate report from A&W with results from a study about the staffing challenges nationwide. She said while it showed health and safety concerns were one reason, tax refunds, stimulus checks and unemployment benefits ranked near the top as far as reasons people were not returning to work. Increased minimum wage and competition within the industry also accounted for some of it but she pointed out there’s been a 40 percent reduction in interest in the industry since last June alone, brought on by the rise in remote-work jobs and lower-contact jobs.

“There are some places that have completely closed because of no staffing,” she said. “At least we’re not there yet... I’ve got to stay positive.”

The only thing Braaten feels she can control are the number of hours she and her overworked staff are working. Last week, she made the call to reduce her hours of operation. A&W is now only open until 8 in the evenings instead of 10. Braaten said she had hoped this summer to be open even later than that but has been forced to go in the opposite direction.

Casey’s manager Tamara Besaw is likewise having difficulty getting new employees.

“Nobody wants to work,” she theorized. “I just don’t get it. At least it’s a job. I don’t care what you’re making, it’s better than nothing.”

The 10-year employee of the Webster convenience store added, “I have to work. I like eating.”

While she said they’ve always had a harder time finding and keeping quality employees, she said she’s noticed things have gotten markedly worse since the pandemic.

“We’re not even getting applications now,” she remarked.

Besaw also said she has the same issues as Braaten with people not coming in for their scheduled shift. She said they term it “a no-call, no-show.”

“At least if I’m going to be late, I’ll call and tell you,” she said. “In life, things happen. I got to look at both sides. If you have kids or a family, things come up. But you can call me to let me know. Life is life but I’ve always asked people to at least let me know.”

At present, Besaw said she would really like to hire a couple more part time employees, some who have flexible schedules.

At Webster ACE, Shannon Garduno said she and husband/co-owner Alfredo are hoping to gain at least one more full time and a couple part time employees soon. Already, they’ve had to reduce the later summer hours they were making plans to do because they couldn’t find someone to commit.

“It has been extremely difficult to get new team members,” she said. “The ones we have are fantastic and I don’t want to lose any of them... Everybody is looking for help. Everyone needs good workers right now.”

A common theme Garduno said she’s seeing is after hiring someone new that after just a week or two, the new employee will start acting out, talking back, not being willing to follow directions, being conflictive with other employees and more. Garduno said they will then be forced to fire the person.

“Purposely, it seems, they will try to get fired. They won’t quit, but they have us fire them,” she said. One cause of this, she thinks, “In my opinion – there’s too much free money out there and people just don’t want to work.”

Garduno said prior to the pandemic, they would deal with these sort of employee issues rarely but said it’s become more commonplace since. Traditionally Garduno said they have one to maybe two unemployment forms to fill out per year. But this year already she’s dealt with more than six.

“Those forms are a pain to fill out,” she commented, but added that as employers they’re required to do so and have no choice in the matter. The unemployment forms come through the state’s re-employment assist program, she said and she’s required to spell out the former employee’s work history, how long they were there and reasons they no longer work there before faxing the sheet back. Anytime that former employee tries to apply for unemployment assistance going forward, Garduno said she has to fill out the exact same form again – all by hand.

“They make me fill out the same form, over and over and over,” she said, adding it would make her life easier if the forms were either digitized or at least pre-filled out so all she had to do was review the information and check a box to confirm the information is accurate.

“Just something so I’m not having to re-write all the information by hand again and again and again,” she said. “The re-employment program can be a good thing... But it’s being abused. It’s still needed but it’s being abused.”

Garduno admits, however, that she’s only seeing the matter from one perspective. All she knows is the extra hoops she has to jump through every time she has to fill one of these out has added more stress during a pandemic. She thinks if there had not been a pandemic they would be easily hiring the extra help they need.

“As an employer, we need good workers... diligent, trustworthy – someone who is going to be looking out for the business,” she said.

It’s hard to attract those type of employees, she said, when she and her husband can’t yet offer health insurance benefits. She said they’re waiting on the state to approve the ACE health insurance pool. It was a major benefit they were looking forward to when they switched from Hardware Hank to ACE, she said.

With over 50 employees, Jay Pereboom isn’t exactly short staffed at Pereboom’s Cafe as he is struggling with a constant scheduling battle. Since the bulk of his employees – he estimates in the 75 percent range – are high school students, he said when students become involved in other activities outside of work and school, it can be difficult to know when he’ll have a full employee roster per each shift. Even with so many employees, as a family-owned business for the past 45 years, Pereboom said not that long ago there were eight Perebooms working one shift to get by.

“The cafe has twice as much help as it used to have but because of scheduling needs, all those are needed,” Pereboom said. He added they are still looking for a few more for help, specifically adult housekeepers for their hotel and dishwashers and cooks for the cafe. He said they’re willing to train. “It’s refreshing when you have someone working who is not involved in so much stuff. They just jump right over everybody else. I wish society in general would understand the importance of a year-round high school job. The life lessons learned from this.”

In his experience, the pandemic has only made scheduling with teens even harder. He said now that things are beginning to open up, families are looking to make up for lost time by going on vacations together.

He said he wishes making a commitment to a job was a little higher of a priority although he said he understands at the same time. He thinks it’s a needed shift in societal thinking.

“I think a job should be part of a college resume and not just a summer job,” he said. “It’s just as important as community service. It’s really nice when a parent backs the employer. It’s good when parents are on the same page as us and have the same kind of work ethic.”

He said he wanted to emphasize the life skills teens can gain from working a steady job – socializing, multi-tasking, learning to deal with people who are jerks and the feeling of accomplishment, as well as earning a paycheck rather than just expecting one.

Today, Pereboom said if it weren’t for his teenage staff, he may not have any staff at all.

“We don’t ever get any adults looking for jobs, hardly ever,” he pointed out. “Everybody can attest, giving people money not to work was not a good idea.”

Pereboom said he doesn’t want to sound too harsh about his younger employees either. Pereboom said it can actually be really fun working with high schoolers.

“They’re not pissed off at the world – you get to be like a teacher and yeah, maybe you have to show them something a few extra times, but they’re good,” he said. There have been times when due to being short of help at the hotel, some of his high school staff have been willing to step up and help out.

At Mike’s Jack & Jill, owner Mike Grosek said several months have passed since he started looking for help in the store’s deli section. While he said he’s staffed comfortably in the rest of the grocery store, he said two to three more people in the deli would be good. He said he’d rather not share his theories on what’s causing the apparent worker shortage.

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