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Employers Still Can't Find Enough Workers, Right When Business Would Be Booming

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Lots of Americans are traveling, eating out, doing all the things that were off-limits during much of the last year. For many businesses, this is the payoff they've been - waiting for. But just as demand is surging, employers are having trouble finding enough workers to keep up. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: This summer should have been a bonanza for Aaron Baumhackl. He runs Solstice Wood Fire Pizza in Hood River, Ore., where the last pandemic restrictions were lifted just this week.

AARON BAUMHACKL: The demand is like we've never seen before. People are clamoring to Hood River to get out of the city. It would have been a record-breaking year.

HORSLEY: Would have been, that is, if Baumhackl wasn't forced to turn away business. His restaurant typically employs more than 100 people during the peak summer season. But this summer, he's short staffed by about 40%.

BAUMHACKL: We're open 4 1/2 days a week instead of seven. The catering, we normally do about 50 events. We're doing eight. It's hard. We say no, no, no all the time.

HORSLEY: That's a common complaint from all kinds of businesses. They've got lots of customers but not enough workers. Many employers are paying a premium to attract new hires, even though millions of Americans are still out of work. Economist AnnElizabeth Konkel, who's with the job search website Indeed, says the number of employers offering hiring bonuses has more than doubled from a year ago.

ANNELIZABETH KONKEL: It does show that there's plenty of employers who are ready to throw money at the problem to try to get the workers they need.

HORSLEY: Of course, paying a one-time bonus is cheaper and easier for employers than raising wages. But some businesses are doing both. Valerie McCann boosted wages to $20 an hour, added a retention bonus and health benefits. But she still had trouble recruiting line cooks to staff her Wacky Knacky Diner near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

VALERIE MCCANN: I typically have five cooks. And I was down to two cooks. So we were drastically limiting the amount of people that we were seating.

HORSLEY: McCann says applications finally picked up a few weeks ago, after Missouri stopped paying the special unemployment benefits that Congress authorized during the pandemic. Missouri was among the first of more than two dozen states that are phasing out those payments of an extra $300 a week early in hopes of pushing people back to work. So far, the results nationwide have been unclear. But McCann thinks it's working.

MCCANN: In fact, I've hired four new people. And I'm still planning to hire a few more.

HORSLEY: There does seem to be a disconnect right now between employers, who need help urgently to keep up with surging demand, and would-be employees, who are in no particular hurry to return to work. A survey by the Indeed website found most job seekers do plan to start working within the next three months. But many are waiting for schools to reopen or vaccination levels to rise or for their personal savings to run out. Chief Economist Nela Richardson, who's with the payroll processing company ADP, thinks all of this will get sorted out in the next few months.

NELA RICHARDSON: It may take longer than some firms anticipate to find qualified workers. But we do think that that logjam is temporary as firms and workers find each other again.

HORSLEY: Still, many business owners that struggled to survive the pandemic are frustrated not to be able to capitalize now that demand has come roaring back. That's especially true for seasonal businesses that rely on a few summer months for the bulk of their income. But Hood River restaurant owner Baumhackl is philosophical. With his pizza oven dark two days a week, he's getting a rare chance to play tourist in his own backyard.

BAUMHACKL: I went rafting with my kids yesterday. My manager went camping with her husband for the first time in a long time - things that, in the hospitality biz, you normally don't get to do in the summer.

HORSLEY: Even when the labor crunch is over, Baumhackl is not sure about going back to a seven-day-a-week schedule. He thinks both restaurants and the broader economy are due for a reckoning on the value that workers provide and how they should be treated and paid. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O AND THE KIDS' "HIDEAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.