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Restaurants Struggle to Keep Steady Number of Employees; Workers Finding Alternative Careers Outside of the Service Industry

By Nathan Ham

The restaurant industry in the High Country has faced many different layers of problems since the COVID-19 pandemic began about 18 months ago. Many have suffered from having to close dining rooms (some of which have yet to reopen), food shortages and most recently alcohol shortages from ABC Stores throughout the area. Employee shortages, however, have been the longest-lasting and hardest hitting to date. 

Many restaurants have taken to social media hoping to lure interested workers to come and help fill several openings, ranging anywhere from cooking and cleaning to hostesses and waitstaff. 

Statistically, Watauga County’s unemployment rate has dropped from its peak of 13.9% in May of 2020 to 4% at the end of June of this year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Currently, the labor force for Watauga County is listed at 27,181 with 26,197 currently listed as employed. However, many of those that have returned to the workforce did not return to the restaurant industry. 

“The pandemic has certainly impacted this need. People are concerned about their own health and the health of their families and may be concerned about putting themselves at risk,” said Rebecca Bloomquist, the Communications and Business Services Coordinator for the High Country Workforce Development Board.  

For fast-food workers, cooks and waitstaff, wages are typically much closer to the minimum wage threshold of $7.25 an hour in North Carolina. For waitresses, an employer is required to pay at least $2.13 an hour as long as each tipped employee receives enough money in tips to make up the difference between the wages paid and the state’s minimum wage. Employers are required to pay more than the $2.13 hourly cash wage if the tipped employee does not earn at least the minimum wage. 

Other industries in the area have been the beneficiaries of some leaving the restaurant and service industry in general. Parkdale Mills in Mountain City, roughly a 30-minute drive from Boone, has been filling positions that offer a starting pay of $15.50 up to as much as $23 an hour. American Emergency Vehicles (AEV) in Jefferson, GE Aviation in West Jefferson and Carroll Companies, Inc. in Boone, jobs that require limited interaction with the general public, have all filled job openings that had been advertised online and through virtual job fairs. 

Unemployment benefits have helped those that have lost a job or do not feel comfortable working in the general public, whether it be their own health concerns or the concerns for the health of family members. The additional $300 of unemployment assistance from the federal government is expected to end on September 5. 

“Those who are receiving unemployment insurance are able to stay safe at home instead of going back to work. In addition, families with children may have childcare issues, which may or may not be impacted by the beginning of the school year,” Bloomquist said. “The workforce we have today is different than a decade ago. It’s important to keep in mind single-parent households, limited childcare options, workers with aging parents or family members that may need care and to try to make adjustments to meet the workforce. Many times women are impacted more by needing to be out of work to care for sick children, the needs of aging parents/family members, and virtual school in 2020 especially. Right now, job seekers can be more selective in where they choose to work and are able to interview employers at the same time they themselves are being interviewed to see what the business offers in benefits and policies.”

She feels like despite what a lot of people have said about the additional unemployment benefits, the $300 federal supplement helped many people and wasn’t a deterrent in people returning to the workforce, it was instead a way for folks to feel safer and healthier. 

What Businesses Have the Most Positions to Offer?

According to data provided by the High Country Workforce Development Board, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System is the largest employer in the seven-county region that HCWDB serves, needing the most help. They have posted 181 job openings in the last 90 days, according to NCWorks Online. Appalachian State is just behind them with 173 job openings in the last 90 days. Ashe Memorial Hospital (118 job postings), Food Lion (109 job postings), Tyson Foods, Inc. (107 job postings), Lowe’s Companies, Inc. (104 job postings), Asplundh Tree Expert Company (102 job postings) and Lowes Foods, LLC (86 job postings) are also seeking to fill numerous positions. 

What Jobs are Available?

Registered Nursing positions are the most popular job available in the High Country, according to NCWorks Online job postings. A total of 270 RN positions have been posted in the last 90 days. Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses had 77 job postings, nursing assistants had 61 job openings, retail salespersons had 56 job openings, first-line supervisors of food prep and servers had 43 job openings, food prep and servers (including fast food) had 39 job openings, janitors and cleaners had 38 job openings and restaurant cooks had 34 job openings 

Overall, there are 2,619 job openings available in Ashe, Watauga, Wilkes, Avery, Alleghany, Mitchell and Yancey counties. 

What the Data Shows

The number of people employed in the High Country has steadily gotten close to pre-pandemic numbers, according to the most recent data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the High Country Workforce Development Board. In October of 2019, there were 96,975 individuals employed in the seven-county High Country area. The number bottomed out in April of 2020 at 76,203. As of June of this year, the number is back up to 91,772. That means that all but 5.3% of the workforce in the area has returned to work.