Op-EdAppeared in Florida Sun-Sentinel on March 30, 2021By Carlos Gazitua

Three steps to solving Florida’s service industry labor shortage

Florida is ahead of the curve when it comes to reopening its economy as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes. The Sunshine State was one of the first to fully reopen restaurants last fall. This first-mover advantage gives Florida small businesses a broader perspective than their national counterparts of the challenges associated with fully returning the economy to pre-pandemic operational levels.

One of the biggest impediments to such a robust reopening is finding qualified workers. Florida restaurants like mine, which were among the pandemic’s biggest economic victims, are struggling to find enough workers to operate at capacity. Our cooks, servers and support staff are working nearly every day and are on the verge of burnout if help doesn’t arrive soon. We are unable to schedule their summer vacations because no one can fill their shifts. If restaurants can’t ramp up hiring soon, dining room capacity will continue to be sacrificed until the fall, and restaurants may be forced to stick to just takeout and delivery, negatively impacting earnings and the economic recovery.

Labor force participation in Florida and nationwide has yet to regain even half of its pandemic-related decline. Florida’s topline unemployment rate of 4.8% does not accurately reflect the labor market conditions on the front lines where we work every day.

We are calling on state and local government officials to take three steps to ease this workers shortage. Other states — even if their small businesses still face pandemic-related operational restrictions — should pursue similar steps to accelerate their economic recoveries.

First, state officials must make restaurant workers eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. Our state did the right thing to focus on seniors first, but now it must pivot to help the frontline restaurant workers who still cannot get vaccinated. Opening up vaccinations to this group of workers will expand the labor pool to include the countless individuals who are still too afraid of the virus, or transmitting the virus, to come back to work. Roughly 17 states, including New York and California, have opened up vaccinations to restaurant workers, and we believe Florida and other states will follow suit soon.

Second, state officials can address the perverse consequences of expanded unemployment benefits by allowing workers to temporarily keep a small portion of their benefits after returning to work. The recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill extended $300 per week federal unemployment benefits to September. These funds come on top of existing state-level benefits that are nearly $300 per week in Florida and average nearly $400 nationwide.

Receiving a few thousand dollars each month in unemployment benefits may disincentivize able-bodied Americans from returning to the workforce. In fact, at this payout rate, many service-sector workers may make more money staying home than going back to work. Policymakers can help smooth this return to the workforce by allowing workers to retain around $100 of their state-level benefits for their first few weeks back on the job.

Finally, state and local officials and trade associations should evaluate who has left the workforce to understand what investments are needed to bring them back. For instance, are service workers looking to change industries, or are they just holding out for higher pay? A recent analysis in the Wall Street Journal suggests that service workers are not moving en masse to blue-collar work.

By working with area schools and developing basic skills-training programs, such initiatives can develop a long-overdue service employee pipeline for small businesses across the state and country. For example, Miami College Hospitality Institute uses a grant from the city of Overtown to train residents at homeless shelters like Camillus House with culinary skills for the hospitality industry.

Even though Florida’s economy is, by many respects, the envy of the nation, significant hurdles to restoring the workforce remain. Other states may need an even more aggressive approach. Yet by making restaurant workers eligible for vaccines, smoothing the unemployment benefit transition to returning to work, and evaluating who has left the workforce and why, Florida and other states can accelerate their economic recoveries and, by summer, party like it’s 2019.

Carlos Gazitua is the CEO of Sergio’s restaurants and a member of the Job Creators Network.