Grace Zhao said she struggled for months to find employees for her Chinese restaurant in west Frisco.

In the spring, the Zhao Star China Bistro restaurant co-owner brought in a robot that delivers food from the kitchen to its diners. Zhao is sometimes the only person waiting tables, and the robot helps take some tasks off her plate, she said.

As more businesses struggle to hire staff, especially those in the service industry, companies are willing to go to new lengths to find workers or overcome the shortage.

In January 2020, nearly 211,000 employees were working in food service and drinking establishments throughout the six-county area that includes Frisco, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

By April 2020, that figure dropped to almost 130,000 workers. As of July this year, service industry employee numbers had climbed back to more than 219,000. Despite surpassing pre-pandemic numbers, many local employers say it remains difficult to find workers to keep up with rebounding demand.

Frisco Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tony Felker said a workforce shortage existed before COVID-19 but was made worse by the pandemic.

“It’s just the perfect storm of a whole bunch of different circumstances,” Felker said. “Your whole normal workforce market has been thrown out of kilter by so many different factors.”

For some Frisco residents, Felker said trouble finding child care and the rising costs of housing as well as general fear about the virus itself are affecting the return to work.

Courtney Coss, the chief retail officer for 16 branch locations of the Credit Union of Texas, said multiple branches are short-staffed, including those in Frisco and McKinney.

Many of the openings are remote or over the phone, which is more attractive to people these days, Coss said. And the credit union has attracted former retail and restaurant workers looking to transition to a different career. And yet, multiple locations for the credit union are still short-staffed, she said.

“We really are just trying to staff up because it has been so challenging ever since last year,” she said.

Results from the shortage

Jim Bauer, owner and president of PuroClean Restoration Specialists in Frisco, said finding quality employees has been difficult.

“It has been like nothing I’ve ever seen in over 30 years of management and leadership,” he said.

Bauer has to select when to schedule the employees he does have. The staffing shortage means he risks burning out his existing employees. It also means not being able to provide the level of service he wants to customers.

“We have more opportunities than we can respond to,” he said.

Brett Lee, president of Texas Health Frisco, said it’s a challenge to find hospital workers at all levels, not just the entry-level positions, he said. His workers have been busy treating the delta variant of the virus as well as other patients’ health concerns.

During the initial wave of the virus in 2020, patients mostly stopped coming in unless their visit was COVID-19-related, Lee said.

Now, however, people are returning to address other health concerns as well as treatment for COVID-19 and its variants. There are more patients, but not enough staff to treat them, he said.

The hospital is augmenting its staff with medical workers from out of state as it experiences “the highest patient census that we’ve seen,” he said.

“That’s really the commitment that we made to this community, and that’s why it’s so critical that we’re able to fill these positions,” Lee said.

Karen Musa, executive dean at Collin College with a background in hospitality and food service management, said restaurants being forced to shut down or transition to different models caused financial stress for employees.

As businesses reopened with restrictions, employees who relied on tips were not making what they used to, according to Musa, who helps oversee the Institute of Hospitality and Culinary Education at the college.

“A lot of people did move on because they had to support their families,” Musa said. “So, even as [business] started coming back, they gravitated to another [less volatile] industry.”

The combination of customers dining out more often and less experienced restaurant employees on staff may be contributing to a perceived staffing shortage, Musa said.

“The public ... is wanting to get back to normal,” Musa said. “But a lot of [restaurants] are not ready for that.”

Considering unemployment

Gov. Greg Abbott announced in May that Texas would opt out of further federal unemployment payouts related to COVID-19 as of June 26. He cited an abundance of jobs as well as an estimated 18% of all claims that were or were suspected to be fraudulent. This included the loss of a weekly $300 supplemental benefit, a move some said would help push people back to work.

In Frisco, the number of residents receiving unemployment benefits peaked at more than 10,757 in April 2020, a reported record-high for the city, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those numbers are closer to about 4,000 as of August, which is still a few hundred higher than 2019 numbers.

Jonathan Lewis is a senior policy analyst with Every Texan, a nonprofit that advocates to improve equity in health care, education and jobs. He said blaming workers’ benefits implies that Texans are unwilling to work.

Lewis said he believes factors such as child care, low wages and a lack of jobs that match an employee’s skills can turn away potential workers.

“This characterization that workers are lazy is pretty damning,” he said. “If it’s just a $300 benefit that’s holding people back from accepting a job, [it is] a pretty sad state of affairs.”

Another issue is that some salaries are not high enough to afford the basics.

In Collin County, the average family of four needs to bring in $6,783 a month after taxes, or about $81,400 annually, to afford housing, food, transportation, health care and other necessities, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The same data for Denton County shows similar numbers, with the average family of four needing to bring in $6,657 a month after taxes, or $79,880 annually, to afford necessities.

Jeff Smith, the area managing director of the Omni Frisco Hotel, said the hotel has increased wages to retain and find more employees.

“We’ve absolutely had to evaluate our compensation and adjust accordingly,” Smith said. “That’s been a competitive advantage for us.”

Creative solutions to the shortage

Zhao said her robot is there specifically to reduce the need for waitstaff to run back and forth from the kitchen to the tables. They can focus instead on working the kitchen or ringing up tabs.

But even with the robot, she is still looking for employees.

“The robot does not take human jobs,” Zhao said. “It just helps make our human life better.”

Smith said his hotel has been able to attract and retain employees by focusing on worker’s experience. In addition to the revised compensation, employees receive health care plans, 401Ks and other benefits. It is an investment that also pays off for the guests, he said.

“If we have associates that are happy with their work life, then that will certainly manifest in a better guest experience,” Smith said.

Industries need to get creative with the increased competition for hiring, Brian Medina said. He is based in McKinney and serves as the vice president of talent acquisition and strategy with Self Opportunity, a recruitment solutions company officed in Lewisville. He is also on the board for the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association.

Some solutions include looking at new employee pools, such as refugees, as well as examining the hiring process, Medina said. Most people are looking at applications on their cell phones, and if that process is cumbersome, that translates to losing candidates, he said.

The hiring climate is not likely to abate any time soon, either, Medina said. Restaurant models that operate as only a kitchen and serve food-to-go—also called ghost kitchens—are becoming more prevalent. Other industries are also evolving to require fewer workers or to come up with creative benefits.

“You’ve got to have a plan [to hire],” Medina said. “There are a lot of ... ways to find some talent out there.”

Emily Jaroszewski, Anna Lotz and Erick Pirayesh contributed to this report.