Kentucky bars and restaurants face worker shortage as some COVID restrictions ease

The worker shortage comes at the same time the service industry is hungry for employees.
Published: Apr. 2, 2021 at 10:58 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Kentucky bars and restaurants are the busiest they’ve been in months amid pandemic restrictions, but now they face a new struggle in finding workers.

Before the food gets to your table at Noche Mexican BBQ on Bardstown Road in the Highlands, the staff is slicing, dicing and frying as fast as they can.

Owner Aaron Diaz told WAVE 3 News there’s more than enough work to go around.

“You know I need everything, I need a server, bussers, hosts, bartenders, looking for another manager because we’re actually experiencing abnormal sales volume from what we thought we would see,” he said.

Diaz said customers may be encouraged to dine out more because of the warm weather and the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. He explained Noche is busiest on the weekend.

“Right now it’s just the volume. We have to shut to-go’s on Friday and Saturday just because we can’t handle both. We can’t handle both outside and all the seats we have outside and again that goes back to staffing.”

After rehiring some employees, Diaz plans to hire 10 additional people and offer a $100 sign-on bonus to new hires.

“Now I think we’re about 90% right now, you really feel that 10% on the weekends, tables aren’t getting cleaned fast enough, food is not getting out fast enough,” he said.

Down the street at SuperChefs, co-owner Rodney White told WAVE 3 he wants to hire more people to meet the demand whether they’re “young, old, experienced or inexperienced.”

“So we laid off, we laid off about half our staff in the past year,” he said. “You know during COVID everybody took some form of a loss so now we have an opportunity to kind of get people back on their feet and also get them ahead.”

Stacy Roof with the Kentucky Restaurant Association explains most restaurants across the state are looking to hire but not everyone laid off amid the pandemic will come back.

“It’s everything from they’re not coming back because they have children at home or they took another position,” she said.

Roof said the demand for workers is a good sign that restaurants are seeing more foot traffic, but she warns lingering COVID restrictions are still having a big impact on business.

“Even though the capacity has increased a little bit, for most restaurants especially smaller restaurants it doesn’t give them additional space because of social distancing requirements,” she said.

The worker shortage comes at the same time the service industry is hungry for employees.

Across the country, US employers added 916,000 jobs in March with nearly 20% of those jobs in bars and restaurants according to CNBC.

Until they’re fully staffed, owners like White and Diaz say they need support from customers on slow days and patience from customers when it’s busy.

“Sometimes we can’t get you in on a Friday or Saturday, but we have plenty of seats on a Monday,” Diaz said. “That goes for every restaurant out there, the slower days really help maintain an equilibrium.”

Kentucky restaurants are still limited to 60% capacity indoors and must stop food and drink service by midnight and close at 1 a.m.

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