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NAMPA — Treasure Valley businesses are starting to see customers return in droves. After a challenging year, marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the reemergence of cash-flush patrons should be an opportunity to bounce back financially, but there’s a problem: Many businesses are struggling to find workers to meet the resurgent demand.

Dylan Hutter, co-owner of Holy Cow!, a restaurant in downtown Nampa, said the worker shortage emerged last year, but the lack of qualified, available workers has not only failed to subside but its effects have grown worse in recent months as demand has increased.

“It’s puzzling,” said Hutter, who has worked in the restaurant industry for decades, in Idaho as well as Oregon. “This is all new to me. It’s been one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done as a restaurant owner.”

Holy Cow! is one among many businesses facing a similar challenge. Treasure Valley restaurants and retailers are pleading with “help wanted” signs in their windows. Zamzows, the Boise-based lawn, garden and pet business, recently reduced its hours due to insufficient staffing — during its busiest time of the year, KTVB reported. Online job postings show a need for manufacturing and industrial workers, as well. Even ride-hailing services, Uber and Lyft, are seeing a decrease in active drivers.

Katie Baker, executive director for FARE Idaho, a food and beverage industry advocacy group, said the shortage is effecting businesses across that industry, from bar and restaurant operators to farmers.

“It’s crazy that our food and beverage community glimpses the light of the COVID tunnel and then can’t find staff to run shifts,” Baker said in an email. Now, they’re “finding themselves back at square one.”

“The pandemic was rough on staff due to reduced hours, policing patrons, forced closures, etc.,” Baker said. “One thought is that many left the food and beverage industry to work in other industries. There is a national labor shortage, and it’s not just Idaho.”

Nationally, restaurant jobs have increased this year, but food and beverage industry employment remains 1.8 million jobs — or 15% — below pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Holy Cow! recently expanded its restaurant by a couple dozen seats. The expansion has stretched its 36 employees thin, because business is good, up about 50% in recent months, Hutter said. The restaurant, however, is struggling to take advantage. While additional employees are needed, few applications are coming in. Some people who are offered jobs are never heard from again, Hutter said. The restaurant is offering $500 bonuses to line cooks just to take a job and stick around for a few months. That’s on top of $13 to $18 per hour, plus tips.

“We offer what we consider to be in the top tier of the industry,” Hutter said of his restaurant’s compensation standards. “We feel like were offering a pretty decent job for a pretty decent wage. We don’t think that the wage is the issue in our particular case.”

Hutter said the worker shortage may be linked to “juicier” unemployment benefits — federal unemployment assistance has provided hundreds in additional benefits to unemployed workers throughout the pandemic.

“I get that, and I understand,” Hutter said. “People needed it.”

The American Rescue Plan earlier this year provided $1,400 one-time payments to all income-eligible adults and their dependents, and the plan currently allows for $300 per week in additional unemployment benefits through September for unemployed Americans.

Some lawmakers argue the enhanced benefits are a disincentive to working. Idaho Gov. Brad Little last year launched a return-to-work bonus program, funded by federal coronavirus relief money, which provided $750 to $1,500 payments to workers if they chose to forego unemployment benefits and return to work. Idaho’s U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch this week proposed federal back-to-work bonus legislation, modeled on Idaho’s program and designed to “counteract” unemployment benefits.

The claim that enhanced unemployment benefits are leading to worker shortages has been disputed. A 2020 study by Yale University, for example, found 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.” Other factors, such as fear of catching the virus at work, low wages compared to other industries or conflicting responsibilities (kids at home, for example), may also be contributing to a decrease in available workers in a particular industry.

The total number of working Idahoans increased by 501 in March to 870,560, the Idaho Department of Labor reported. March’s unemployment rate of 3.2% was slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels of 2.8% in January 2020.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the food and beverage industry that’s dealing with a worker shortage. Manufacturing and industrial jobs are seeing similar issues.

“We’re definitely in that boat,” said Brock McGarrah, production manager at R&H Machine, a foundry in Caldwell. “It’s hard trying to find somebody that’s willing to work, that wants to work, that needs a job.”

A foundry — a factory for cast metal — isn’t for everybody; it’s dirty, hot and the labor is physically demanding. But McGarrah said some employees have worked at R&H Machine since the 1980s. No special certification is required, and the company provides on-the-job training. Nevertheless, the company had to go through a temp agency for one of its recent hires. With Idaho’s continued population growth — the second-fastest in the country over the last decade, according to Census data — McGarrah said he expected new workers to come, but “I’m not seeing it.”

“I’m not saying it’s not happening, but I’m not seeing it,” he said. “I just don’t have people walking in the door asking for applications.”

In yet another industry, transportation, ride-hailing service drivers — who essentially work on a contract-basis and make their own work schedule — are not as active. That’s leading to higher rates and longer wait times for riders in the Treasure Valley. Spokespeople for San Francisco-based ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft told the Idaho Press they’re seeing increased demand from riders.

“What we’re seeing is people are looking for rides and there’s not enough cars to pick them up,” said Harry Hartfield, public affairs manager for Uber. “It’s nationwide, especially in more urban areas like Boise.”

Like other businesses, Uber and Lyft, looking to recover from losses in 2020, are considering incentives to get drivers back on the road. Uber plans to invest $250 million in incentives such as bonuses for trips and working hours.

“Those things historically are good at getting drivers back on the road and increasing earnings,” Hartfield said. “Our hope is that over the next couple weeks, reliability will get better. There’s no magic bullet here. It’s going to take time but we hope it’ll be sooner rather than later.”

Idaho Press reporter Paul Schwedelson contributed to this report.

Ryan Suppe is the Boise City Hall and Treasure Valley business reporter for the Idaho Press. Contact him at 208-344-2055 (ext. 3038). Follow him on Twitter @salsuppe.

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