'Struggling to hire folks': As travel jumps, many Turnpike restaurants remain closed; worker shortage blamed

·3 min read

Jul. 9—SOMERSET — Crossing western Pennsylvania on their way to Virginia Beach, Jennifer and Mikayla Matheney followed a familiar green Starbucks signs to the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Oakmont service plaza.

But the chain's espresso machines — and counters — were empty.

Although Mikayla was able to find her iced vanilla latte an hour further down the road at the South Somerset plaza, she and her mother arrived with the realization their lunch options were no less limited.

Three of the plaza's five eateries — Popeye's, Sbarro and Auntie Anne's — were closed, leaving travelers to choose from the well-known Seattle coffee chain and Burger King.

"You're kind of stuck with what they have on the Turnpike right now," said Jennifer Matheney of Akron, while waiting for her daughter in the plaza's food court-style dining hall Thursday. "Everything's basically closed — except Burger King."

Spanning the state between Lawrence County and the Lehigh Valley, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's 17 always-open service plazas dot the roadway every 45 minutes or so — offering recurring reminder of how the current COVID-19 climate continues to impact the food service industry.

Even as virus cases continue to fall across much of the nation and summer travel revs up, the plazas' contracted operator, HMSHost, is still struggling to find people to fill shifts, Turnpike Commission officials said.

'Staffing is down'

The story is consistent along the 360-mile toll road, Turnpike Commission spokeswoman Roseanne Placey said.

"Our service plazas are experiencing the same sorts of issues everyone in the hospitality industry is facing — staffing is down significantly and they are struggling to hire folks," Placey told The Tribune-Democrat.

With motorists' minds shifting to vacation mode, rising demands threatens to magnify the issue.

More people will be lining up to grab meals inside the plazas — with the same limited number of employees there to serve them, Placey acknowledged.

"Right now, we're asking everyone to be patient," she said.

According to Turnpike Commission estimates, 625,000 motorists were projected to use the toll road Thursday alone.

Nearly 6 million people are using the highway over the 10-day Fourth of July travel period — a 20% increase from 2020, Turnpike officials said in a release to media last week.

Maryland-based HMSHost operates travel centers from Indiana to Maine and as far south as Beckley, West Virginia. Company officials did not respond to messages for comment about the worker shortage.

A manager inside the South Somerset plaza declined comment, citing corporate policy, while she shifted from handling duties behind Burger King's counter to straightening up in the customer area just before lunchtime on Thursday.

One staff member indicated restaurant options expand during peak weekend hours — but there were no indications of how long the overall closures could extend.

That was tough news to swallow for Angel Peralta.

The Newark, New Jersey, man was hoping for a bowl of Sbarro pasta for lunch during his trip.

Peralta said he sometimes travels the Pennsylvania Turnpike three times a week, which means he either has to pack something to eat or rely on a limited service plaza.

"Once in a while, a fast-food burger is fine — but you can't eat it every day," he said. "But that's pretty much the choice you have right now."

Still, that doesn't mean the folks working inside the plazas are to blame, travelers said.

Jennifer Matheney works in the plumbing business.

And despite the good wages it brings, her company is backed up with scheduled jobs, she said while stopped at the Somerset plaza.

"There's lots of work but there aren't enough people around who want to do it," the Ohio woman said. "It's not just here. It's the same problem everywhere."

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