There is work for anyone who is looking in East Alabama right now, especially at restaurants and hotels.
Businesses across Opelika and Auburn are posting signs offering on-the-spot interviews, with some hospitality businesses offering hourly wages in double digits as they try to rebuild staffing to meet rising consumer demand after a year of COVID-19 restrictions on travel, foot traffic and the like.
Complicating the picture is the enhanced federal unemployment benefits made available over the last year to help people who were laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Employers like Kim Wirth acknowledge that the help was necessary when so many people were out of work, but many complain now that they can’t compete with the bigger unemployment checks.
“You know, the interesting thing about our business is we pay well above minimum wage – most of our positions are, you know, $10, $11, $12 an hour, not $7.75,” said Wirth, who owns and operates the Collegiate Hotel in downtown Auburn. “But with some of these kickers that the government has added on, no one can make that expectation. So that’s the challenge: we want everyone to be able to be successful and be able to support their families, but in an industry like ours, we have slim margins.”
Wirth said she and husband Brian worked the 40-room Collegiate by themselves for much of last spring and summer, having laid off their staff when state and federal restrictions slowed business to a crawl. They started calling people back to work before the Auburn University campus reopened in August, and they were able to make do with a skeleton crew as travel restrictions lingered and Auburn football crowds stayed away.
Things have opened back up and the Collegiate and its competitors, plus area restaurants, need help. Wirth said there has to be a way to make these jobs more attractive to people who aren’t currently in the work force.
“I wish there was a little bit more consideration of some type of hybrid approach, you know … not penalizing people or not rewarding people for completely staying at home,” said Wirth. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I wish they were being a little bit more thoughtful. … They’re treating everything the same way, just spreading it across the board.”
Gov. Kay Ivey recently announced that Alabama would stop taking the extra $300 per week per unemployment recipient that the Biden administration is offering states – apparently in response to businesses complaining about not being able to find enough help.
“Folks are not going to work and our businesses and industries can’t find workers,” Ivey told the Opelika-Auburn News Friday. “It was to be a short-time program, not a forever program, and we need to get our people back to work. That’s the reason they don’t have a job – they’re getting paid to stay home.”
State Rep. Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) said he understood where Ivey was coming from, but he said extra money is helping people who really need it.
“If I’m looking at it from just a pro-business standpoint, I can see why she says that, but I look at it more as a people thing,” Gray said Friday. “A lot of jobs aren’t paying as well, and this (federal money) is helping people have a liveable wage at the moment.
“… I think there are people who are benefitting from this unemployment and are looking for jobs,” said Gray, “but I think she’s pulled it too quick.”
A-O Tourism and the Opelika and Auburn chambers are hosting a job fair May 25 at Southern Union State Community College for hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses in dire need of workers.
“The staff at AO Tourism knew there would be challenges post-Covid,” said Robyn Bridges, vice president at of Auburn-Opelika Tourism. “But nothing could prepare us for the devastating workforce shortage our hotel and restaurant partners are experiencing now. Business levels are returning to normal, but with no staff, we won’t be able to serve those who are trying to patronize us.”
The Hospitality Industry Job Fair is set for the Southern Room at Southern Union, 301 Lake Condy Road in Opelika. It is free and open to the public. Some of the businesses are so understaffed that they may hire right on the spot, according to organizers.