Hiring hang-ups: Some Northside businesses still struggling to find enough employees
By Sean P. Ray | Managing Editor
Shoppers at BreadWorks in January may have been surprised to see a sign outside the bakery declaring that it would be closed on Sundays and Wednesdays due to staffing issues.
While the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be over, the fallout from the disease continues to have a major impact on various parts of society. Difficulty in finding workers is one area which is still troubling multiple businesses, and the Northside is not immune to this issue.
“The reason we did that is because we had nobody to bake the bread and nobody to deliver the bread,” said Fred Hartman, owner of BreadWorks, on the closures.
Previously the bakery was able to operate seven days a week. However, Hartman has been finding it difficult to hire enough workers to cover every shift. While daytime shifts can be filled more easily, baking can run until midnight at BreadWorks, and it is those nighttime hours that Hartman has had trouble filling.
Hartman himself has even had to step in to perform deliveries in order to meet his customers’ demands.
“Three routes a week,” he said. “I’m here 43 years — we started the business in 1979 — and anywhere in the last six to eight months, I’ve been on a steady schedule delivering three routes.”
Hartman said he has increased starting wages at BreadWorks to attract more workers. He has also attempted to promote the benefits of working at the bakery, such as the low cost health insurance offered, the profit sharing benefits and flexible hours.
However, he said some people don’t feel comfortable working in an open environment with many people after the COVID-19 pandemic flared up. Further, he thinks part of the problem in drawing new workers is in how people view baking as a profession.
“I don’t think the public looks at baking as it could be a lifelong passion for you,” he said. “The baking industry definitely needs to get people in who want to work.”
Cara Todhunter, executive director of Reformed Presbyterian Home, has faced similar issues in finding enough workers.
“I probably have one or two (Certified Nursing Assistant) applicants in a period of two months, when it used to be I had two applicants in a period of a week,” Todhunter said.
Todhunter said the senior-living home has fortunately done better than some of its contemporaries thanks to a relatively low turnover rate. She attributed this to many of the staff being Northsiders themselves, creating a “tight-knit” community of employees.
“That’s a benefit to us, because when they come here and work, they stay,” she said. “I have employees who have been here up to 30 or 40 years, and that’s due to their dedication to the community and they’re close to home.”
However, the shortage of new workers has created many issues. Todhunter said it has stifled Reformed Presbyterian Home’s ability to expand on its services, as well as created a struggle to keep up on maintenance for the building.
“We’ve had difficulty hiring for housekeeping positions, or at least getting people to show up for work when we hire them,” she said, “and that definitely puts a strain on our daily operations.”
Ellie Wentz, coordinator for the NorthSideWorks program at the Northside North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said the hospitality industry appears to be the most affected area in terms of employment troubles. NorthSideWorks is an employment program started by the chamber of commerce which aims to educate people about employment opportunities and promote pathways to careers.
“I will say I don’t think it’s as dire as during the heart of the pandemic,” Wentz said. “People are still needing people, and I think they always will.”
However, she’s noticed many businesses having to change how they operate due to employment problems, such as being open on fewer days or shorter hours.
Wentz said the pandemic brought out many longstanding employment barriers to the fore. She believes that by working around those barriers, businesses can have an easier time getting workers.
“Like childcare for example,” she said. “People are realizing that if I’m an employer, I need to have options if people want to work.”
She said in instances where a business can’t offer a pay raise, flexible hours or providing bus passes can be alternate ways to attract workers.
Wentz also feels there’s been a gap in information for people searching for work. Potential employees may be unaware of training opportunities to become skilled in certain trades.
“You can come out making really good money, people just don’t know about it,” she said.
Making potential workers aware of such training opportunities is something NorthSideWorks attempts to do. Wentz called the “information gap” about such trainings the biggest issue she sees during this time of hiring difficulties for employers.
NorthSideWorks has also created an employer resource guide to help businesses with finding workers. The guide can be found online at northsidechamberofcommerce.com/community/northsideworks/.