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Help Wanted, Badly: Local Businesses Struggle To Find Workers

Photo by Nora Edinger A temporary closure sign near the front entrance to Patsy’s Pizza in Elm Grove reveals the business’s search for workers continues. It’s a problem common to many businesses around the Ohio Valley.

WHEELING — The “now hiring” signs in front of nearly every eatery and store in the city are morphing into occasional “closed” signs. This included one outside the iconic Patsy’s Pizza that remained in place for the second half of April.

Just what is happening to work in the Ohio Valley?

Has a COVID-driven expansion of unemployment assistance and rounds of stimulus checks sunk — at least temporarily — the need for paychecks? Is it something else — population decline, opioid addiction, poor health?

Three voices shared their takes on such questions. They include Joe Vespa, owner of Patsy’s Pizza of Elm Grove; Del. Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, who also heads the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce; and John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research in Morgantown.

PIZZA AS ART

“Some of us can make it look easy, but it’s something that’s lived, not taught,” Vespa said of making pizza in the Italian style featured at Patsy’s. “It takes a while.”

That learning curve is critical in an operation in which a batch of dough is started each half hour, sauce is scratch and cheese is freshly grated, he said. “It’s almost like a talent. Some people got it and some people don’t.”

He believes need for mastery is the major player in his own staff shortage, rather than COVID relief. This, he said, is because he pays above even the state’s minimum wage of $8.75 per hour. With base pay of $9 to $11 per hour and tips, he said employees are making $14 to $15 an hour and have paid vacation after a year of work.

Not that all of them last that long. That would be the trouble, he said.

Vespa said a typical job interview reveals disconnect between what he wants from a worker and what workers are offering. A prospective hire often perceives six months of past employment at a restaurant as “a long time.” To Vespa, that sounds like learning curve.

“You just have to hang in there,” Vespa said. “Pizza’s chemistry. It’s hard to get it right.”

This issue has dogged the restaurant’s staffing since the 1990s, he noted. He needs 18 workers, but cannot consistently get close enough to manage the six days of service he’d like to offer, let alone cover the two weeks he and fianceé Kelly Mitchem, who manages the restaurant’s business side, needed to take off in April.

“We just can’t get the staff,” Vespa said, adding that he doesn’t want to wear out faithful workers who have been both making pizzas and running them out to curbside since COVID.

So, they shut down for a while, he said. It was the only way.

A BIGGER PIE

Storch, president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, has heard more of the same.

“They’re losing their minds,” Storch said of employers’ need for workers. “Everybody’s very frustrated. They want to be open. They want to return to their normal (pre-COVID) hours.”

Yet, across food service and retail they simply can’t, she said. Not only because of worker shortage but, as with Vespa, for fear of burning out what workers they do have.

So, like Patsy’s Pizza, Storch said retailers and restaurateurs all over the city are adapting. Some are closing on Mondays. Some are shortening hours, such as some Highlands stores closing at 6 p.m. A downtown restaurant might cover only one mealtime.

And, while those kinds of changes might be easier to see, it’s not just service workers who are in short supply, she noted. Industrial and professional employers are blowing up the internet with job ads. Storch did a quick Google during her interview to find one job paying $22 an hour.

Higher wages, more paid vacation, tweaked benefit packages – it’s all in play, she said. “I hate to say people are stealing other people’s employees, but … (there are) moves within the employed.”

LONG HAUL

As immediate as the need may feel, both Storch and Deskins of WVU’s Bureau for Business and Economic Research said the problem is long term and multi-faceted.

Deskins specifically said the data is not there to support claims COVID relief is driving the shortage.

“Tightness in the labor market is usually identified by a low unemployment rate,” Deskins said of a local rate that is down to nearly where it was pre-COVID. “However, expanded unemployment insurance benefits would likely raise the unemployment rate.”

Storch doesn’t entirely buy that. Based on what she is hearing from constituents, she suspects some people are still spending COVID relief rather than working.

That said, she noted any potential workers in that situation will face changes. As COVID fades, enhanced unemployment benefits will disappear and a lifting of the requirement that the unemployed be actively seeking work will come to an end.

She does not expect that change, however, to create a flush of workers who are ready and willing. Indeed, she foresees frustration for both employers who still need staff and returning workers who may struggle with only wage income.

That kind of “spinning your wheels” feeling among service workers in particular is longer term and more complicated, she added.

“People say, ‘Just raise wages,'” she said. “That sounds great, but if they (employers) pay more, they have to charge more.”

And, there are other factors beyond money in play, both Storch and Deskins said.

“We’re always going to lose people to different climates,” Storch said of one element of population decline, a subject that has grabbed the attention of state leadership to such a point West Virginia is now offering move-in bonuses.

Ironically, if a shortage of labor here creates a wage war, that could bolster population, Deskins commented. “Migration depends heavily on job opportunities. So, if our labor market is seeing faster wage inflation compared to other places, then it will definitely draw in new residents.”

He sees these kinds of numbers as the most critical data in the long-term labor supply.

“The most significant problem associated with the shortage of workers in the state is captured in the low rate of labor force participation,” Deskins said of tapping into whatever population is here. “… We rank last among the states in terms of the share of our adult population that is either working or looking for work.”

Part of this shortfall is an unfixable reflection of the percentage of state residents who have aged out of the labor force, Deskins has pointed out in previous interviews. But, there are things that can be fixed, he added.

“Really, we need to focus on getting people into the labor force in the first place, and this likely requires efforts around improving workforce preparedness, health and drug abuse outcomes.”

It may also include older workers coming back while the need is hot, Storch noted. Her own mother decided to return to work at age 74 after becoming fully vaccinated. She is substitute teaching for Ohio County Schools, Storch said.

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