Walking down the Corner this October feels very different than a year ago, with Corner restaurants and stores opening back up and greeting customers indoors. Still, the hiring signs plastered in restaurant windows remind customers that the uncertainty caused by the pandemic is not yet over.
Businesses across the country face labor shortages and supply chain disruptions though in July, the number of job openings increased to 10.9 million, with many openings in healthcare and food services. Labor for restaurants is down 8 percent from 2019 levels — studies suggest that dissatisfaction with wages, lack of child care, physical and mental health concerns and better opportunities in other industries are four explanations for this restaurant shortage in particular.
In January 2020, right before the pandemic, the unemployment rate in Charlottesville was at 2.2 percent. Unemployment in Charlottesville hit its peak in April 2020 at 10.6 percent. As of July, it had decreased to about 3.8 percent.
Many restaurants and stores on the Corner are facing a shortage of employees, which has resulted in current employees working long hours.
Bodo’s Bagels posted on social media about not having enough employees at their University Avenue location Sept. 20. The popular spot — which opened on the Corner in 2005 — was even forced to occasionally close the restaurant so as not to overload current employees.
Co-owner Scott Smith says this is not a new problem for Bodo’s, as the fall is typically a time of employee turnover at the University Avenue location — as the academic year begins, many employees must establish their schedules.
“This part of the year is always difficult for turnover everywhere, and this year that is magnified by the hiring difficulties literally everybody in every segment of society is having,” Smith said. “It's extra hard this year. It's not so much that we're having some new problem that we've never had before, it's just that there's more of it, you know everything [is] tougher.”
There has been nationwide debate about whether these labor shortages are caused in part by the pandemic and unemployment benefits, which some argue have disincentivized people to find jobs. Economists are divided on the matter, however — data shows unemployment benefits likely do not play a major role in the current shortage.
Pandemic unemployment benefits through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, enacted in March 2020 by former President Donald Trump, ended Sept. 6. These included an extension of unemployment benefits and stimulus checks for up to $1,200 per adult. Salaried workers who lose their jobs can still collect normal unemployment insurance — a maximum of $387 a week — for between 12 to 26 weeks after losing employment.
Smith also noted the new problems the pandemic in particular presented, such as employees feeling sick and staying home or being exposed to the virus, since the restaurant has been trying to keep everyone safe.
Johnny Garver, co-owner of Pronto Fresh Pasta, said the restaurant had a similarly hard time hiring employees, as well as handling supply chain issues. Pronto opened their doors on Jan. 21, 2020, just a few months before the pandemic hit the U.S.
“It's not just in restaurants,” Garver said. “We have trouble getting stuff ordered. Not only that, but the cost of goods has gone up, like almost doubled.”
There are three main companies which deliver to Pronto — U.S. Foods, Performance Food Group and Sysco — Garver explained. Businesses which rely on these three companies throughout the northern coast of the nation have reported issues with their deliveries — U.S. Foods temporarily paused deliveries to customers in Pennsylvania due to a staffing shortage, local restaurants and schools in Maine reported shortages from PFG, and Sysco had to turn away customers when demand exceeded capacity.
Garver believes both unemployment insurance paid during the pandemic and career changes are to blame — when the restaurant industry shut down in March 2020, Garver said many individuals decided to go into fields of work that would not be as affected by shutdowns.
“They're finding other genres of work that are a little more stable, I guess,” Garver said.
Pronto is bouncing back from losses during the summer and winter of 2020 and 2021, with sales up to 80 percent of what they saw pre-pandemic. Now that the restaurant is busy, Garver’s mother and sister have been helping out in the restaurant while Pronto struggles to find new employees.
To attract more applicants, Garver says Pronto is offering higher hourly rates — the restaurant is offering up to $18 an hour, a significant increase from last year, when they were hiring dishwashers for $10 to $12 an hour and cooks for $12 to $14 an hour. Garver said customers need to accept that because employees are getting paid more, the price of the pasta will also slightly increase, but only by a dollar.
The White Spot, which was founded in 1953 and has been serving the University community for close to 70 years, was purchased in April 2021 by a group of 22 University alumni, including Darden graduate Bert Ellis and Ralph Sampson, U.Va. basketball alumnus and retired NBA all-star. Before Ellis and Sampson, the White Spot was passed down through four owners, the most recent being Dimitri Tavampis who acquired the restaurant in 2000.
Ellis said although his main employees have stayed at The White Spot, he has had trouble hiring new people to work at the White Spot’s new food truck, The Gus Bus, which rolled out in August.
“My core staff has been there for a good while and stayed with me during the transition and they're fantastic, reliable staff, but I'm trying to hire more people because our business is way up,” Ellis said. “We're stretching everybody to the limit, and trying to hire more people has been very, very difficult.”
The issue comes when someone gets sick, or an unexpected emergency comes up, Ellis said. The staff does not currently have the flexibility to deal with the unexpected, so Ellis has been trying to fill in gaps where he can. He says if The White Spot was able to hire one or two more people, they would have more backup to deal with unexpected illnesses or events.
“We got the wherewithal to pay people just fine,” Ellis said. “We pay top dollar, 100 percent benefits.”
Demand for the White Spot is up, with the Gus Bus hired for Virginia football games as well as other events.
Kate Green, a manager at Take It Away Sandwich Shop said the restaurant has had trouble maintaining a full staff because when they do find someone to hire, other employees leave. Take It Away opened in 1992 and has been serving the community for almost 30 years.
“People aren't applying, and we get people, and then other people leave,” Green said.
Green attributed this to a number of factors, including the lack of vaccine availability for children under 12 — many parents struggle to find childcare and thus are unable to return to work. Pfizer submitted clinical trial data to the FDA Tuesday on the effectiveness of their vaccine on children ages 5 to 11 — if approved, children aged 5 to 11 could start receiving shots in late October or early November.
Because of the shortage, Take It Away has not gone back to its pre-pandemic store hours, and the restaurant closes early at 3 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. With students back in town, Green said the restaurant is very busy — even with shorter hours, current employees are working longer to keep the business open.
“I work about 60 hours a week,” Green said.
The CVS Health location on the Corner has been especially hit by the hiring shortage, made evident by empty shelves and long lines to check out. Jess, a manager at the CVS on the Corner who wanted to be identified by her first name only, said that for a while she was one of only three employees working at the store.
Jess said shelves are empty because employees are so busy they don’t have time to stock them — not because of any shortage of goods. The store has been reducing hours and closing early so they have time to restock shelves for the next day.
“I think most businesses right now are just hanging in there, hoping that it will get better,” Jess said. “It's got to [get better], people have to pay their bills… Because if they don't then the people who have been working the whole time are still going to keep quitting in significant numbers.”
CVS increased its minimum wage for employees to $13 an hour and said it plans to up their minimum hourly wage to $15 by July, as well as eliminate their grade-point-average requirement for university recruitment.
Not all businesses on the Corner have had hiring issues. Mark Lorenzoni, co-owner of Ragged Mountain Running Shop, says that the store hires mostly students to work on a flexible, part-time basis. Because of this, the store has not experienced the same kind of trouble hiring new employees.
“These guys work three hour shifts, and then they go back to class,” Lorenzoni said.
Lorenzoni said he was warned by sales representatives that there will be a supply shortage in the coming months, so the store is stocking up on shoes to prepare.
“I’ve been stocking up on shoes … because [the supply chain issues are] coming,” Lorenzoni said. “Shipping, the container ships, the truckers, the factories … it all plays into it.”
Ragged Mountain had consistent business throughout the pandemic because loyal customers continued to order shoes for walking and running during lockdown, Lorenzoni said.
Some Corner staples, such as Littlejohn’s and College Inn, did not survive the pandemic. The businesses still open are beginning to bounce back, despite the challenges of labor shortages and supply chain disruptions.
“We’re still here, though. We’ve made it,” said Garver. “We turned the corner where hopefully we’ll stay.”