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‘There’s a universal Help Wanted sign out there’: Some Carroll County businesses struggling to hire workers

dylanGeorge Sakellis, owner of Fratelli's Italian and Seafood restaurant, helps Kaitlyn Owen as she seats tables at the restaurant's Hampstead location Friday, June 11, 2021.
dylanGeorge Sakellis, owner of Fratelli's Italian and Seafood restaurant, helps Kaitlyn Owen as she seats tables at the restaurant's Hampstead location Friday, June 11, 2021. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

While small business owners try to recover as the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly approaches an end, they continue to face another challenge: a lack of workers.

Although Carroll County has the state’s lowest unemployment rate at 3.9%, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, a number of positions at local businesses remain unfilled. Some business owners say they are struggling to find the help they need, hurting their ability to keep up with demand for their products and services.

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George Sakellis, the owner of Fratelli’s Italian and Seafood in Hampstead, has been running a successful business in the county since 2012. In 2018, he opened a second location in Howard County.

When the pandemic hit in March of last year, he said he started to experience staffing problems immediately.

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“Staff started getting scared and taking weeks off at a time hoping [the pandemic] would pass,” he mentioned. “I lost a lot of employees since a lot of them didn’t come back.”

In the past month, the problem has been “worse than it’s ever been,” Sakellis said. “We can’t hire fast enough.”

Various businesses nationwide have been facing similar challenges. A March survey by the National Federation of Independent Business found that 42% of owners had job openings that could not be filled.

The number of businesses that reported being unable to find enough workers reflects a recent U.S. jobs report, released at the end of May, which shows a record high of 8.1 million openings across the country.

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As coronavirus cases have begun to dwindle after a quarantine-filled year and residents have felt safer going out into public spaces, restaurants have become busy again.

“We don’t have the workforce to accomplish daily operations successfully,” the owner said, adding he has had to eliminate tables from his dining room because he doesn’t have the staff to support them.

George Sakellis, owner of Fratelli's Italian and Seafood at the restaurant's Hampstead location Friday, June 11, 2021.
George Sakellis, owner of Fratelli's Italian and Seafood at the restaurant's Hampstead location Friday, June 11, 2021. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

On a normal weekend, he said he would usually have 10 to 12 servers on the floor but lately, he’s only been able to have six at once. He also only has half of the bar staff he’s had in the past.

He said his payroll is the “highest it’s been” while the key employees are getting “worked to death” and accumulating hours and hours of overtime every week.

Although Sakellis said pre-pandemic he would sometimes get 30 and 40 applications in a day, now he’s lucky to get five or six a week.

Even when he can schedule an interview, he said most of the time applicants don’t show up.

Because he hasn’t been able to hire in so long, he said his sales are being affected tremendously.

“We can’t serve as many people and we have to take less reservations,” he stated.

Sakellis said he suspects unemployment benefits provided during the pandemic has a big role to play. “If this does not stop, people will not apply for jobs.”

He said there are currently “so many job opportunities available,” including jobs that allow their employees to work from home.

“I had a group of four professional employees and they all got jobs working from home,” he said. “They were moms and their husbands felt better about them paying the bills from home” during the pandemic.

A lack of available workers also impacts restaurants as the food market has drastically increased because “no one has the labor,” Sakellis said. He used to be able to buy crab meat for $25 a pound but that price is now closer to $47 a pound.

Anna Cannon, owner of several Belisimo’s Ristorante locations in the county, also believes that unemployment benefits are part of what’s keeping people from applying to jobs.

“It’s hard to get people to come back,” she said.

Belisimo’s never closed during the pandemic, but ever since Cannon has experienced issues with being short-staffed.

“We made it work but it’s not easy. … We’re all killing ourselves and god-forbid anyone gets sick.”

She noted her customers get upset when the restaurant is running behind.

“They don’t understand we can only do so much,” Cannon said.

Many business owners in the area are blaming their staffing issues on weekly unemployment insurance. Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced Maryland will end enhanced federal unemployment benefits next month and require people getting unemployment checks to prove they are looking for new jobs.

At least 24 other states decided to prematurely cut off the additional aid, which provided an extra $300 a week on top of regular state unemployment benefits. The supplemental benefit was not slated to expire until Sept. 6 of this year.

Hogan cited the widespread availability of vaccines and a tight labor market in explaining his decision, which according to the most recent unemployment filings would affect about 15,000 people.

Owner of Hometown Auto in Finksburg Darren Daneker said at the end of the month he plans on listing his open positions on Indeed, with the expectation that the number of people looking for jobs will rise as pandemic benefits end.

While Daneker needs to hire workers with at least five years of experience as an auto mechanic, he runs into another problem. He said while people haven’t been getting a lot of hands-on experience over the last year, it becomes harder to find the right applicant.

Although he’d be willing to train someone new to the field, he said right now he just doesn’t have the resources to do so.

“A lot of people who apply don’t have great resumes or they can’t pass a drug test and that doesn’t cut the cheese,” he said, noting his two mechanics are having to work a lot harder and workplace morale is very low.

“We’re backlogged about two weeks and … our revenue has been butchered in half,” he said.

While Hometown Auto also acts as small dealership, Daneker said he’s been handling car sales 100% by himself. He’s looking to fill at least one general service position, one experienced salesman position and one automotive technician position.

Hampstead Mayor Chris Nevin said on Friday over 45 businesses are hiring in Hampstead alone, from supermarkets to restaurants to manufacturers.

“It’s across the board. ... Businesses are saying they need people,” he said. “There’s a universal Help Wanted sign out there. Hopefully people are getting off the sidelines and getting back out there.”

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