Even with the lowest unemployment rate in the state—2.7% as of May—Williamson County remains one of many counties across Tennessee looking to fill open positions as the area economy continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The hospitality industry was the hardest hit during the pandemic, accounting for more than 70% of net jobs lostduring the pandemic, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. However, the sector is recovering, adding 9,100 jobs in April.

•As the industry recovers, a number of local restaurants have reported trouble finding enough employees to fill shifts over recent months, forcing them to work short-staffed or adapt to new hours.

“Unfortunately, we have had to close an extra day because of it,” said Jo Pezely, co-owner of Izzy’s, a restaurant in Franklin. “We were open seven days a week, but it was too much for us, so we decided to take that extra mental day, which is a Monday. But it was probably two months ago that we decided to close on Tuesdays.”

Help wanted

For the past several months, many unemployed residents have been eligible to receive nearly $600 a week in state and federal benefits. But as of

July 3, Tennesseans were no longer eligible for programs that provided additional funds on top of the state’s unemployment benefits.

“We will no longer participate in federal pandemic unemployment programs because Tennesseans have access to more than 250,000 jobs in our state,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a May 11 release. “Families, businesses and our economy thrive when we focus on meaningful employment and move on from short-term, federal fixes.”

In results released in early June, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of just over 500 unemployed people who have not returned to work showed 16% of respondents did not have a financial incentive to look for work; however, that was not the only reason given for not returning.

Lauren Ward, interim president and CEO of Visit Franklin, said issues from the pandemic, such as health risks, still linger. A lack of child care and COVID-19 concerns were reported by 24% and 26% or respondents, respectively.

“I’ve heard that it’s a mix of reasons. For a long time, it’s been health and safety. I think people that are in those close contact situations still have a little bit of hesitancy when it comes to safety of returning to work,” Ward said. “Child care is also another big issue and trying to figure that out, particularly coming back in the summertime.”

Local employers said many employees have also made career changes that took them out of the hospitality industry altogether.

“We know some people that totally changed jobs on purpose, like [people] who started driving trucks, or [moved into] shipping and receiving,” said Brad Bittermann, co-owner of Izzy’s.

Employee turnover, wage competition

Compounding hiring issues, Bittermann said turnover has also become a concern for restaurants. He and Pezely said they have spent money advertising jobs through sites such as Indeed to find candidates and set up interviews, only to have them never show up or quit shortly after being hired.

“We had somebody that was working for us for two weeks [and] was doing great,” Bittermann said. “One day, this person clocked out for break and never came back.”

In addition to existing restaurants looking to hire staff, Williamson County continues to attract new restaurants, creating a higher number of employers looking at the same pool of local candidates.

North Italia, a new restaurant opening at McEwen Northside on July 21, has been working to make sure it has enough staff members to open on time.

“We’re working on some new ways like most brands are trying to get in front of people,” said DJ Duporte, senior marketing manager for North Italia. “We’re hitting up all the schools and the nearby apartment complexes, churches, all those community-oriented areas where we can kind of get in front of what will be this new growing workforce for us, hopefully.”

Duporte said the eatery will still be hiring up until its opening date.

A number of hospitality businesses have also begun offering incentives to help attract new employees. Tom Rybak, general manager of Hilton Suites Brentwood said his hotel has seen a shortage in housekeeping staff and is offering signing bonuses for new employees.

“We’re offering $500 hiring bonuses right now; we’re offering our existing employees referral bonuses if they refer a new employee,” he said. “We’re coming up with all kinds of creative and new incentives to get people to come apply and talk to us.”

Pezely said while many small businesses cannot afford financial incentives, her servers already make comparable wages as demand for dining out has increased in recent months.

“I get frustrated because I hear people say, ‘Well you should pay people more,’ and they make really good money,” Pezely said. “Our servers make great money as does the back of the house or [our] hostesses—great money.”

Recruiting near and far

Ward said while employers in Franklin and Brentwood are still experiencing problems hiring staff, the problem is nationwide, she said.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in April 2021, accommodation and food services added more than 349,000 new jobs, while approximately 1 million employees quit or were laid off.

“This is not a problem that’s exclusive to Williamson County; it is a nationwide issue,” Ward said.

To help attract employees to the area, TDOTD announced June 17 it has launched a new “Come Work, Come Play” campaign aimed at hospitality workers. The campaign includes digital ads that will run statewide as well as in cities such as Dallas, Texas; Miami, Florida; and Atlanta, Georgia.

More locally, companies such as A. Marshall Hospitality—which operates Williamson County eateries like Puckett’s Gro. & Restaurant and Scout’s Pub—have held hiring events to reach out to the community. Claire Crowell, A. Marshall Hospitality’s chief people officer, said back-of-house employees, such as cooks, have been particularly hard to find.

“It’s a tough market, particularly in the kitchen talent area,” she said. “Kitchen employees [are] more of a niche for sure. You have to be into cooking, not just serving people and customer service.”

Bittermann said while Izzy’s continues to look for more employees, the restaurant has learned to make do with existing staff by cross-training employees to work in multiple areas.

“Cross training is the key of the future here,” he said. “You teach cooks how to be servers and bartenders how to be cooks. There’s no, ‘That’s not my job here.’ It’s all our job.”