Where are the workers? Labor shortage vexes local employers, as extra benefits end

·4 min read

Sep. 4—SHARON — Buhl Mansion Guesthouse and Spa Manager Laura Ackley hired six employees last week for the upscale Sharon hotel.

Problem is, none of them showed up.

Ackley's employee shortage is just a snapshot of a growing labor problem, here and around the country: Lower-wage employers often can't fill jobs.

Owing to the labor shortage, it's not unusual for consumers to hit their favorite fast-food spot, only to find the restaurant is serving only beverages, or is closed because of reduced hours. Even a local steel mill had to take out billboard ads to entice applicants.

The labor shortage has had another impact, too: It has, in effect, driven up the state's minimum wage, officially set at $7.25 an hour. That's the same as the federal minimum wage, which hasn't risen since 2009.

But check out help-wanted signs in local gas stations, fast-food restaurants, or liquor stores. Traditional minimum- or near-minimum-wage jobs are starting at $12 or $13 an hour, or even more.

Last year, at the pandemic's peak, employers began massive layoffs. Mercer County's jobless rate surged to 17.7 percent, while the national jobless rate hit 15 percent. (Mercer County's unemployment rate in June was 6.8 percent.)

The pandemic was hardly the first time exceptionally high unemployment rates plagued Mercer County. In the early 1980s, when major factories started to close, the county's employment rate exceeded 22 percent.

This may, however, be the first time high unemployment rates co-existed with severe labor shortages for certain employers.

Some employers say the government has made it more lucrative to sit home. When COVID-19 tossed many people out of work, weekly unemployment checks were boosted by $300 a week.

"The government is giving people more money if they stay at home than if they worked," said Brandon Johnson, a manager at Popeyes' Louisiana Kitchen in Hermitage.

But Pennsylvania will end the extra unemployment benefit Monday, raising the question of whether that will lure more people back to work.

Meantime, a lack of employees has strained workers still on the job, including salaried managers like Ackley and Johnson. On this day, Ackley — who also manages Donna's Diner in downtown Sharon — was elated. She didn't have to work a double shift, so she got to sleep nine hours.

Hourly workers, too, have been pressed.

In April, Dominick Dodson of Sharon was hired on-the-spot as a cook when he applied for a job at Popeyes. Dodson continues to serve in his post — with little time off. He's worked seven straight days and four straight double-shifts. "I'm a little tired," said Dodson, who wants to become a manager.

And he may get his chance for a break.

With the workforce stretched thin, current employees can quickly ride up to management jobs.

In May, Johnson, who works with Dodson, started in Popeyes' kitchen. Several months later, he became a manager. "I learn quickly." he said with a smile.

A Youngstown resident, Johnson contrasted the labor market in Youngstown with that of the Shenango Valley's.

"In our Youngstown restaurant, we get two to three people a day coming in, asking for a job," he said. "Here in Hermitage, we haven't gotten one person in four days. It's depressing."

He's willing to reach out to those with criminal records for most positions. "If I have a good vibe about someone and our general manager has a good vibe — we'll hire felons."

Cooks are in heavy demand. At 63, Donna Vigus, a former dishwasher, cooks at Tara, A Country Inn. It's a manual job — but not an overwhelming one, she said.

"There are occasional dust-ups among the staff, she acknowledged. "But at the end of the day, we all leave here as friends," Vigus said.

To attract more potential employees, employers have boosted wages. Over the past 18 months, Ackley has raised wages for entry-level jobs by 50 to 65 percent. Without the loyal staff who stayed on their posts, the doors would close, Ackley said.

"We have an amazing core of staff that have been working tirelessly through these last 15 months or so of a staffing crisis," she said. "They have had more put on their plates, too. We wouldn't survive without them."

Another uncertainty in the new economy: Once people flock back to the workforce, will higher wages stick?

Said Phil Smalley, a Hermitage human resource consultant and former steel mill executive: "Once you give somebody something, it's hard to take it away."

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