Lack of job seekers threatens livelihood of many local businesses

Without a staff of part-time employees, Laura’s Tea Room regular staffers Ainslie Dooley, left, and Emma Grace Pope show their dismay at having to work longer hours and rarely having days off. | Carol Allen

BLYTHEWOOD – “We made it through the pandemic shutdown. We made it through the months of carryout only. We built a patio to accommodate outdoor seating. We made it through limited seating. But this could end up closing our business,” said Carol Allen, owner of Laura’s Tea Room in Ridgeway.

The “this” she is referring to is her increasing inability to hire employees – people who need to work to earn money.

“We just cannot find people to work. They just don’t seem to need to work now like they used to,” Allen said.

“We’ve had to cut the number of our High Tea reservations in half. At least one day a week we don’t serve High Tea at all. We still have our regular staff, but our normal level of service depends on having a staff of part time employees as well. We don’t have that anymore, so our regular staff has to work without any days off. I am truly thankful for them,” Allen said.

“Before the pandemic we would get 20 to 30 responses to a ‘Help-Wanted’ ad. Now we’re lucky to get 2-3 responses. I think the increased unemployment benefits have taken away the incentive for many people to work. It seems they don’t need to,” she said.

While business at the tea room is good, Allen said it’s difficult to offer the same great service with fewer employees. 

“We have plenty of customers now, but we can’t accommodate them all because we don’t have enough servers,” she said. “We have had to cut back on the service we can provide. It’s the same amount of food, but not as much fun,” she said. “It just kills me. High Tea is all about lavish service.”

In Blythewood and Winnsboro, the story is the same.

Dining-in restaurants have had to restrict services with early closings, drive-thru only, restrictions on take out service as well as long lines and waiting periods – all due, they say, to a lack of workforce.

Scott Opolyn, owner of Scotties’ Café and Grill in Blythewood, said he recently had to close his restaurant for eight days because he didn’t have enough employees to open. He blames what he calls over-generous unemployment.

“The problem is that the government is paying people to stay home from work,” Opolyn told The Voice.

Most fast food restaurants in Blythewood and Winnsboro have ‘Help Wanted’ signs posted in front of their buildings.

Grocery stores in are also having a difficult time hiring employees for part time positions. Hiring signs in the stores list deli/bakery, cashier, stocker and associate positions. Hours of operation have been cut for some departments that are understaffed.

A recent visit to the Blythewood IGA grocery found the deli closed with a sign posted on the deli display case that said it was closed due to a staff shortage. At the front of the store a table is set up with application forms and pencils and a sign offering employment.

While restaurants have been some of the hardest hit with staffing problems, some retail establishments are also suffering.

A sizable retail operation in Blythewood that did not want to be named, recently had to open with only one employee.  A spokesperson for the store said full time and part time employees, managers and associates are badly needed. 

Robbie Martin, owner of four retail stores in both Ridgeway and Winnsboro – two fashion boutiques (Bella & Blue and Shades of Blue) as well as the Palmer Street Market gift shop and the Cotton Yard Market consignment shop – said she is having a hard time attracting part time workers.

“My regular staff, who have stayed with me and worked through this whole pandemic, are pure gold,” Martin said.  “But without a doubt, the government’s unemployment payout has left no monetary incentive for the extra help we need.”

Martin said retail is suffering from a two-edged sword.

 “Not only can we not find people who want to work, but because customer traffic slowed down due to the pandemic, there is less revenue coming in to allow merchants to increase wages for employees. That also makes it more difficult to recruit.”

Managers and owners of retail businesses in Blythewood, Ridgeway and Winnsboro say they are suffering not only because they can’t find employees, but also from a lack of product because their suppliers across the state and country can’t attract enough employees to make the supplies local retailers need.

 “We are comfortable with our number of staff,” said Brice Porter of Porter Gas – a family owned propane store in Winnsboro that also offers a large line of outdoor grills and kitchens – “but we can’t get enough product through the supply chain because of a lack of employees up the line,” she said. “We have one order that is nine months overdue.”

Empty shelves at Dollar General in Blythewood.

When asked why so many shelves at the Dollar General in Blythewood continue to be empty months after the pandemic lessened its grip on the business community, one of the two employees in the store that day blamed suppliers’ inability to provide and ship product the store needs.

Karen Phillips, the Administrator of Pruitt Health in Ridgeway, said she is experiencing a significant need for additional employees.

“We are considering offering a job fair at the end of August,” she said.  “We need all varieties of employees.  We even offer a program that hires employees as housekeepers who would like to become CNAs.  We send them to Midlands Tech for the CNA course at our expense. This allows them to earn money while going to school.  Then we can hire them as CNAs after they graduate.” 

“Our workforce has been crippled by the continuation of the increased unemployment benefits,” said Diana Robinson, Director for the Fairfield County WIOA (the Fairfield County Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) program. Robinson recruits jobs for industries in Fairfield as well as smaller businesses.

“With the continuation of the unemployment extensions, people don’t want to go back to work,” Robinson said. “We are having trouble finding people interested in training and employment. Some Individuals were receiving $900 a week which is more than they were making going to work,” Robinson said. “And I really can’t blame them,” she added.

Governor McMaster stopped extending the extra benefit for unemployment in South Carolina as of June 26. The Biden administration has instructed McMaster and other like-minded governors to reinstate the benefit. If that happens, those states will likely also have to pay retroactive benefits until Sept. 5, 2021.

If Biden reinstates the extension after Sept. 5, Robinson said that will create problems for both small businesses and large industries in Fairfield County.

“I don’t know what will happen to these businesses, these companies, if people don’t go back to work pretty soon,” Robinson said.

Those seeking work in Fairfield County can call 803-635-2812 at WIOA for applications.

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