SOUTHINGTON — Businesses are having to increase wages and even temporarily close as hiring remains difficult across some industries.
After being so short-staffed that he had to close Zingarella Pizzeria for three days in late June, owner Mark Zommer said filling shifts remains difficult and he’s had to raise wages to attract and retain workers.
“I know friends that own restaurants that are paying guys five, six dollars more for the job than they were paying them before Covid,” Zommer said.
Though he hasn’t had to raise prices yet, Zommer believes it’s inevitable in order to keep up with rising wages. Though business is thriving as customers return to their favorite restaurants after staying home during the pandemic, he’s unsure how price increases could play out in Southington’s competitive restaurant market.
“We’re not raising any prices as of yet, but it's going to happen,” he said. “It has to unfortunately. We're not even thinking about that yet, we’re going to get our feet back on the ground and going smoothly and then we'll worry about that.”
Since workers who lost jobs or had hours reduced by the pandemic can continue to receive supplemented unemployment benefits, Zommer said some of his former workers can earn as much as they were while working and have opted not to return. The additional $300 a week from the federal government is due to end Sept. 4.
Connecticut’s unemployment rate has been falling since its height at the start of the pandemic, according to state Department of Labor statistics, with the most recent data putting it at 7.7 percent in May. However, that is more than double the average of 3.6 percent in 2019.
Greater Southington Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Coleman-Hekeler said staffing shortages are extending beyond the restaurant industry and low wage positions. Companies in the automotive, manufacturing and home healthcare sectors have been advertising through the chamber and offering perks to new hires.
“Several businesses have increased the hourly wages, increased the benefit side of things as well as offered signing bonuses. And despite all of that still having difficulty,” she said.
The impact of restaurants not being able to consistently remain open ripples through the local economy, Coleman-Hekeler said. The town is known for its eateries and they attract many out-of-towners who patronize other businesses.
Even during Restaurant Week — a chamber sponsored event where restaurants across town offered discounts to encourage diners to try new establishments — some participating restaurants were forced to remain closed for a few days because of staffing shortages.
“I hope that people that are choosing to do that decide soon to get a little more motivated to go back to work and not just waiting for (supplemented unemployment benefits) to end in September, because that's how we keep our economy going,” Coleman-Hekeler said.Unemployment benefits not the sole culprit
Workers choosing to remain unemployed rather than return to work isn’t the full picture of what’s left many positions unfilled, said Ann Harrison, communications director for Workforce Alliance — a company which provides job training and pairs workers with firms looking to hire. She said many people put out of work by the pandemic used that time to explore more stable and higher paying jobs.
“It's not the whole story to say people are just sitting home because they want to keep collecting unemployment. People make decisions based on what's best for them and their families — that includes child care, that includes livable wages. We applaud people who take the time to reassess,” she said.
Even before the pandemic, many manufacturing and healthcare companies lacked skilled employees and were partnering with Workforce Alliance to retrain workers from other sectors. Those with experience in retail and restaurants, for example, are prime candidates for the healthcare industry since they already have experience working with the public.
“So we view them as a prime audience that's going to be coming to us to explore what their options are,” Harrison said.
Connecticut’s aerospace and medical manufacturing industries are the prime focus of job training programs offered by Workforce Alliance, particularly the many small companies which supply parts for Sikorsky or Electric Boat. Those firms are often overlooked by people searching for new career opportunities, Harrison said, so Workforce Alliance has created partnerships with Middlesex and Gateway Community Colleges to pair workers with the skills needed to enter manufacturing.
“Even before the pandemic there was a well known need to create more pipelines for people going into manufacturing jobs in Connecticut,” she said.