Despite an unemployment rate of just 2.5% here in Mill Valley, the job boards for the 94941 are loaded with postings, primarily for service industry jobs, spanning grocery store, cafe and retail clerks to salon, pet care and real estate office receptionists.

We are not alone. 

From the hyperlocal to across the United States, there’s no question that businesses are having a hard time bringing back their furloughed employees and hiring new ones. ​As we continue to move towards a broader reopening of the economy, the national conversation about hiring challenges has turned political, according to the Huffington Post. Some, like GOP Rep. David Rouzer (North Carolina) blaming the pandemic social safety net“This is what happens when you extend unemployment benefits too long and add a $1400 stimulus payment,” Rouzer said on Twitter last week.” Democrats “are going to make the next four months impossible for small businesses to hire,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) added.

It’s a dubious argument, according to a study by the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale University, which found that “workers facing larger expansions in Unemployment Insurance benefits have returned to their previous jobs over time at similar rates as others. We find no evidence that more generous benefits disincentivized work either at the onset of the expansion or as firms looked to return to business over time.”
Fed Chair Jerome Powell has indicated that he agrees. If demand for workers were exceeding supply, then the price of labor would be shooting up, but Powell said last week, overall wage growth hasn’t increased. “We don’t see wages moving up yet, and presumably we would see that in a really tight labor market,” Powell said at a press conference.

The current unemployment rate in California is 8.5%, and is vastly lower at 4.8% in Marin. For months, restaurateurs across the country have been sounding the alarm about an industry-wide labor shortage, from small, independent restaurants to big national chains, many of whom are largely blaming their inability to retain or even re-hire on expanded unemployment benefits designed to mitigate the economic devastation of the pandemic. They’ve claimed that “no one wants to work” because they’d rather stay home and cash unemployment checks have become commonplace, even though those claims aren’t entirely accurate, according to Eater.

As with most issues, the real reasons employers are struggling to fill openings appear to be more complex and nuanced. Money is only one part of the hiring conundrum – health concerns, expanded jobless benefits and still being needed at home are among the reasons would-be workers might be staying away, according to the New York Times.

As restaurants move slowly to reopen at higher densities, for instance, fewer patrons means less tips for servers and bartenders, which means employees are putting their health at risk while making less money, in some cases significantly less so, Matt Glassman, the owner of the Greyhound Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, told Eater. The dangers are even more acute for back-of-house staff, like line cooks and dishwashers. “There’s no mask in the world that’s going to protect you from being next to someone for eight hours a day in that hot environment,” Glassman said.

The uncertainty and health concerns for many workers has also caused many to flee the restaurant industry and find jobs in other industries – and didn’t look back. The flip side of that trend is that those who have decided to stick it in the restaurant business have more choices than ever before, and there are more open jobs than there are applicants.

The National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group, says a variety of factors, not just benefits, contribute to hiring difficulties. “With fewer people in the workforce, the stimulus supports still in place, worker safety concerns, the need for caregivers to remain at home, and much greater competition with other industries for workers, operators are returning to pre-pandemic recruitment techniques for hiring,” the association’s Hudson Riehle told HuffPo.

The current state of affairs leaves many local employers grasping at straws. The Mill Valley Chamber continues to support its members in assisting their efforts to fill open positions and is partnering with its fellow Marin Chambers of Commerce, the County of Marin and the Workforce Alliance of the North Bay to host a virtual job fair in the coming months.

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