Help wanted II: Restaurants, establishments in Sumter, Clarendon still struggle with finding enough staff

Extra weekly S.C. unemployment benefits ended June 30


Andy Stout is happy to see more people coming back to dine in at Shoney's in Manning.

"It's been a trying year for us with COVID and basically being out of business for almost a full year, but things have been really good recently," Stout said. "We're very blessed on how things are going."

Located next to Interstate 95, the popular American restaurant is a staple in the town with its close proximity to the interstate drawing in visitors and residents alike. As the manager of the restaurant, Stout has observed a number of challenges, such as staffing or closing down temporarily, that Shoney's had to deal with during the coronavirus pandemic. As the restaurant industry was hit hard economically from the pandemic across the country, businesses were faced with extreme changes to their operations with some closing temporarily or shutting down because of the financial burden. Shoney's was one of the restaurants that closed temporarily but quickly reopened with drive-through options, while the inside was closed to customers as staff was busy deep-cleaning the restaurant. But now the restaurant faces the problem of finding workers.

With summer here, crowds of people will more than likely dine at restaurants, such as Shoney's, and shop in stores. However, people will still see numerous hiring signs, leading them to question how restaurants are navigating this continuous problem.

The Sumter Item talked to several restaurateurs in April about how the coronavirus pandemic affected the opening of their establishments, layoffs and the hiring process as part of our Help wanted story. In this sequel, we revisited them and talked to several new restaurants to see how they are managing now in June.

Two months later, and their answer remains the same: They are still having applicant problems.

Shoney's has progressed in getting customers back but still is having difficulty in finding and hiring quality applicants.

"We're slowly finding employees, but it's been a challenge to find people to work," Stout said. "Nobody wanted to work."

Some have gotten lucky in finding enough candidates.

"We are doing very good in terms of staffing," said Richard Marin, one of the managers at Buffalo Wild Wings in Sumter, who also said they saw a huge uptick in to-go orders because of the pandemic.

A lot of restaurants said they are seeing improvement in foot traffic but still face the same stubborn issue of finding employees for their business, something Jacqueline Dupree knows well.

"We're still not staffed how we really want to," said Jacqueline Dupree, general manager at Baker's Sweets Bistro and Bakery in Sumter.

The Sumter Item previously talked with Dupree in April and learned she was forced to lay off individuals in the early stages of the pandemic. Currently, she is doing better in terms of resuming normal operations and hiring staffers but said it's still not enough.

As most of Dupree's employees are high-schoolers, she worries that when school returns in the fall, she will be short on staff. Many of them will have scheduling issues and won't be able to work, she said, leaving her busy this summer to try to find full-time staffers to cover these shifts. Unfortunately, she said it has not been easy.

"We haven't had much luck with that yet. We get people to come in and they work two or three days, and they don't show up again," Dupree said.

Other restaurateurs have expressed these same grievances.

"It's pretty impossible," said Kim Mireles, one of the general managers at Shoney's.

Many say they have interviews scheduled but individuals tend to not show up, leaving positions open and businesses continuing to plaster hiring signs all over storefront windows and doors. They've even offered sign-on bonuses, benefits and other incentives to help attract workers but still aren't seeing much progress in getting enough workers. Over at Shoney's, they are offering a $50 bonus for employees that work 90 days but aren't having much luck. She said they have open house positions such as cooks, cashiers, servers, dishwashers and more.

While lack of staffing has been a continuous issue, another problem that has arisen for local restaurants is the lack of food and supplies.

"We've had a shortage of food trucks," Dupree said. "Our vendors have been running short on a lot of items … and prices are going up."

She is doing everything possible to keep her prices affordable for customers despite these challenges in the restaurant industry but said with less food coming in, it has been a difficult task.

Business owners and restaurateurs are disappointed with people's lack of commitment to work as they scramble for workers. They grow increasingly concerned the staff shortage is because of the coronavirus pandemic-era benefits available to workers in South Carolina.

"There were no applicants out there that wanted to work because of all the benefit packages that are out there," Stout said.

They said these benefits make it easier for candidates to stay home and collect money than go out and find a sustainable job.

However, Shoney's, Baker's Sweets and other establishments may soon see a change in the hiring process, as the state's unemployment benefits came to an end this week.

South Carolina is among 26 states pulling out of federal relief programs ahead of the September cutoff date after Gov. Henry McMaster announced in May the state will opt out of the federal unemployment benefit programs on June 30.

These programs include the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation and Emergency Unemployment Relief for Governmental Entities and Nonprofit Organizations.

McMaster said these programs used to be a source of alleviation for people facing tough situations during the pandemic but have now become a "dangerous federal entitlement" to South Carolinians and the state's labor force.

"South Carolina's businesses have borne the brunt of the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those businesses that have survived - both large and small, and including those in the hospitality, tourism, manufacturing and health care sectors - now face an unprecedented labor shortage," McMaster said in a May news release.

McMaster also said in the release that these unemployment payments are "greater than the workers' previous pay checks," thus creating an environment that encourages people to stay at home rather than return to the workforce. Officials agree with McMaster's statements and said it's time for people to get back to work.

"While the federal funds supported our unemployed workers during the peak of COVID-19, we fully agree that reemployment is the best recovery plan for South Carolinians and the economic health of the state," said Dan Ellzey, the director of the state's Department of Employment and Workforce.

"I know it helps people in their time of need, but if you're able to work, I think you should go out and work," Dupree said. "I'm hoping that people will get out and go out and work and don't let the benefits ending hold them back from getting a job."

For restaurants and businesses, the end of these benefits offers a glimmer of hope as they continuously work to solve staff shortages.

"Hopefully [the ending of the benefits] will make things better," Mireles said.

She thinks the coronavirus benefits ending will push people to work somewhere and "bounce back" the economy. However, she said with so many places hiring, it will create fierce competition among businesses.

"There's so many people desperate to hire workers, there's a lot of competition, and it's going to be crazy," she said.

Stout also said they will continue to operate normally and hope in the coming weeks more applicants will be hired full time.

Stout, Dupree and others agreed these shortages won't last forever and that an end is in sight, but until then, they're taking a "wait-and-see" approach in hiring new staff in these uncertain times.