Each summer, Ted Stambolitis, owner of the Flight Deck restaurant in Lexington, waits for the flood of applications coming in from high school and college kids looking for summer jobs.
“We didn’t have that flood this year,” said Stambolitis. “There are just so many jobs in other industries.”
Throughout the state, restaurants are struggling to find workers, from line cooks to wait staff to dishwashers. An improving economy, the growth of restaurants throughout the state and tightening immigration policies have put restauranteurs in a pinch.
“It’s one of the top issues facing our industry at this time,” said John Durst, president of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. “There are more opportunities than there are people to fill them.”
The unemployment rate in South Carolina dropped to 4.3 percent in April, down from a high of near 12 percent in 2010. That translates into more options for not only young people, but all workers.
And in South Carolina, tourism is booming, especially along the coast. Statistics from the Department of Employment and Workforce show that jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector have jumped by 21,800 in the last five years, to a high of 246,900 today.
The worker shortage there is so acute, especially in the Lowcountry and the Grand Strand, that some restaurants have elected to close on certain days to give their remaining workers a break.
The Main Street Cafe & Pub had been serving food on Hilton Head Island seven days a week for 18 years. But the restaurant now has elected to close on Sunday.
With staff vacancies, the workers “get burnt out,” owner Faith Roppelt told the Hilton Head Island Packet. “The quality goes down. Not only are they affected, but our business is affected.”
Coastal businesses are so strapped for labor that they are busing in workers from South Carolina’s interior and importing workers from foreign countries, Durst said. The businesses pay for transportation, room and board, he said.
“They are busing in workers from Allendale beginning at 4:30 in the morning,” he said.
The shortage isn’t limited to restaurants. It also affects hotels, construction companies and farms, Durst said. And a significant part of the problem is the tightening restrictions on foreign labor.
“We support the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Durst, a former chief of the state’s parks, recreation and tourism agency. “It’s a significant part of our workforce. If there were a slowdown in the supply of those workers, it would affect our growth.”
Added Stambolitis: “We’ve lost a lot of Hispanics; they are not coming up as they used to. Not that I condone illegal immigration. I don’t. But we need to fill these jobs. We need a migrant worker policy.”
The worker shortage is not as serious in the Midlands as it is on the coast; but local restaurateurs are also feeling the effects. A growing downtown with increased numbers of restaurants and hotels, coupled with more visitors coming to town and more local residents with more money to spend because of an improving economy, are putting the squeeze on an already limited pool of workers.
Restaurants in Columbia “are opening all the time; they’re not closing,” said Bobby Williams, owner of the Columbia-based Lizard’s Thicket restaurant chain and chairman of the Columbia Restaurant Association.
Williams said that eventually, restaurants will have to pay more to attract workers and offer benefits such as health insurance.
“But that’s expensive,” he said. “And who is going to pay for that? The consumers.”
Williams added that the Affordable Care Act, commonly know as Obamacare, exacerbated the worker shortage. It requires any business that employs more than 50 workers provide health insurance to their workers. As a result, chains like his have reduced hours for many workers to less than 30 to avoid the mandate.
“So we need more people,” to cover shifts, he said.
Durst said the solution to the labor shortage is unclear. It must include a combination of immigration reform, worker training and other methods.
He said he will present the issue to lawmakers during the next session of the General Assembly.
“Workforce development is going to be our top issue,” he said. “And everything is on the table.”
Leisure and hospitality jobs
April 2017 - 246,900
April 2016 - 246,200
April 2015 - 240,600
April 2014 - 232,800
April 2013 - 225,100
Source: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce