Server Ruby Garcia picks up a dine-in customer’s order while wearing a face shield and face mask at The Potholder Cafe Downtown, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Many businesses furloughed or laid off most or all of their staff when they were forced to shutter indefinitely due to the outbreak of COVID-19. For a year, re-openings and re-closings and re-re-openings were sporadic and wreaked havoc on owners and employees alike.

Now, Long Beach business owners are struggling to find workers—a nationwide issue. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 83% of industry association economists say employers are having a harder time hiring today than they did five years ago and 91% of state and local chambers say the labor shortage is slowing economic recovery.

“If this continues, it will prolong the attempt for a full economic recovery and for certain sectors, like hospitality, it will prevent any type of momentum from fully reopening,” said Jeremy Harris, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, in an email. “If workers are not available that may slow our local recovery. We take this very seriously and have begun to work with partners to learn more and how we can better address the situation.”

On June 1, the U.S. Chamber launched America Works, a nationwide initiative to combat the shortage. The program is advocating for federal and state policy changes to bolster training for in-demand jobs, remove barriers to work and double the number of work visas.

But employers and agencies cannot point to a singular reason for the labor shortage. Some people are not working because of the continued fear of COVID-19, others have lingering childcare issues and, thanks to added benefits that expire in September, some are making more on unemployment than if they went back to their jobs, said Nick Schultz, director of Pacific Gateway in Long Beach.

For several years before the pandemic, multi-restaurant owner Luis Navarro said the restaurant industry was already in a staffing crunch due to what he calls the restaurant renaissance. New eateries were popping up fast in Long Beach, resulting in challenges staffing up, particularly for the back of the house, Navarro said.

“There was already an employee underground war going on between all the restaurants,” Navarro said. “It was literally a grenade and [COVID] pulled the pin on it. It’s bleak. It’s ugly.”

While the back of the house was challenging before the coronavirus, the front of the house, including hosts, servers and bartenders, are hard to come by nowadays, Navarro said. Restaurants, which are often staffed by younger employees such as college students, face another challenge: previous staff has moved away.

Employees could not afford rent after being laid off and, with their classes moved online, students were able to move back home, many outside of Long Beach, Navarro said. With some in-person classes resuming in the fall and fuller schedules coming back in the spring, Navarro said he is hopeful for an influx of people into the labor pool.

Navarro said he also lost employees to other jobs outside of the industry for positions that seemed more or less invulnerable to the pandemic, including food delivery services and e-commerce such as Amazon. Throughout the pandemic, delivery of goods and food skyrocketed and people were able to make more money than by pulling a couple shifts at a restaurant with no dine-in patrons, Navarro said.

And as LA County began its slow reopening in the spring, a new urgency for more staff has exacerbated hiring challenges.

“Everyone is just so tired of being cooped up, so people have been out in droves,” Navarro said. “That presents a huge, perfect storm of a disaster because not only are we not at full strength with our teams, … we’re getting pummeled by the demand. It’s been pretty gnarly.”

Long Beach hotels also are struggling to fill all positions, including front desk, front and back of house for restaurants and housekeeping, said Long Beach Marriott General Manager Imran Ahmed.

The Marriott currently has just over 70 employees, Ahmed said, adding that pre-pandemic he employed more than 200. Business has not returned to normal levels but Ahmed said he could use a staff of about 120 now.

“Everybody’s tired,” Ahmed said, noting that all staff, including management, have been working long hours to offset vacant positions. “And it’s every hotel that’s going through this right now. It’s a huge challenge.”

But many employers are exploring ways of enticing people aboard. ASM Global, operator of the Long Beach Convention Center, is considering increased pay, bonuses and other programs to bring in staff, according to General Manager Charlie Beirne.

The Convention Center is in the beginning stages of re-hiring staff ahead of the return of conventions in early August, according to Charlie Beirne, general manager of the facility. While he is not sure of the response he will get from staff about whether or not they will be returning, Beirne already faced difficulty hiring earlier this year when he had to find a chef to feed the migrant children currently housed in the facility.

“I don’t know if the stimulus plays much into it anymore,” Beirne said. “People still may not feel comfortable, … they can’t find childcare yet and some of our guys may have found other jobs. It’s tough to put a pulse on it, to be honest.”

For staff who are already back to work at the Convention Center, Beirne said they are calling out of work far more frequently than prior to the pandemic. The result is frantically trying to backfill shifts and overtime for other employees, including management, Beirne said.

Excluding food and beverage, the Convention Center would typically have about 135 full-time employees, Beirne said. Currently, the facility is run by a team of 12.

Hiring challenges are not limited to service industries. Traditional office jobs are suffering for similar reasons with the added hurdle of increased demand to work from home. In a February survey by job site ZipRecruiter, 46% of respondents said they want a job that allows them to work from home, even after the pandemic has fully passed.

“Employers are frustrated because labor force participation rates aren’t ticking up,” Schultz said. “Even though businesses are ready to get back online, job seekers aren’t ready to get back in the labor market.”

Wages in the first quarter of this year were up about 3% compared to the first quarter of 2019, Schultz said, which is not enough to entice people back. Large corporations such as Amazon and Walmart have increased starting pay to dollars above minimum wage to boost hiring.

“You’re going to have to pay a premium to entice people out at this point,” Schultz said. “For a myriad of reasons, they’re not ready.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.