Lowcountry businesses struggle to find enough employees

Updated: Jun. 30, 2020 at 10:36 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The temporary solution from the federal government to help people with unemployment is now partially to blame for keeping people unemployed.

John Keener owns four restaurants in the Charleston area and is also the president of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association.

“We are having a major, major issue,” Keener said. “Restaurants and hotels are having to go to limited hours and limited staffing because there are not people to hire.”

Two of his restaurants have done away with lunch service for the time being. They have stopped doing to-go meals because he says he does not have enough hosts. As evidence, he says a normal weekend would have around 15 servers, last weekend he had half of that.

There are two major hurdles in hiring, or rehiring, employees.

First, is the safety aspect the coronavirus. Keener says if someone does not feel safe leaving their home because of COVID-19, there is not much you can do.

The other issue is policy based.

“Many employees are receiving from the state $364 a week and $600 from the federal government. That’s $964 per week,” Keener said.

According to the state website, the average weekly benefits payout from the state is anywhere from $236 to $326. The math on that breaks down to about $15 an hour, which means the part-time, close-to-minimum-wage busser is making more money on unemployment benefits by not working than returning to work.

The problem is not unemployment benefits – it is the extra $600 the federal government is giving out to help people get by.

While it is genuinely helpful for many people, it is a pay raise for some who are not working.

Why go back to work for less money when you can stay home for more? After all, South Carolina’s minimum wage is effectively $7.25 an hour.

“600 dollars a week doesn’t mean so much in New York City, but in South Carolina, it means a pretty good bit,” said Bobby Williams, chairman of the South Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association.

Williams says he normally employs 650 people. Right now, he has less than 500.

“I have 15 restaurants,” Williams said. “Two of my restaurants are closed, only because we cannot get enough employees to operate them.”

The $600 boost to the federal unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of July. When that happens, Williams and Keener expect hiring to get a little easier.

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