St. Clair Shores businesses continue having problems hiring, retaining workers

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published June 22, 2021

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — The past year has spurred a large growth in interest in practically anything that can be done outside, from camping to boating, to bicycling.

That should be great news for a local bike shop, but Tim Focht, the owner of Tim’s Bike Shop, 33601 Jefferson Ave., said it has not been that simple.

“We’re extremely busy, and that’s the whole problem,” he said. “There’s so much work that we need their hands in here as much as possible.”

Focht said he’s had trouble finding people who want to work, have the skills to work and are willing to work for more than just a few hours.

“This year and last year has been a little bit trying, trying to get employees,” he said. “People are a little bit ... happy with the unemployment they’re getting now, is what it is,” he said.

Focht was referring to the difficulty hiring since the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was instituted along with an extra $600 in weekly federal unemployment benefits, which have now been reduced to $300 per week. Those federal benefits are set to expire Sept. 4.

It’s not just retailers and restaurants that are having trouble finding employees, said Kelley Lovati, CEO of the Macomb County Chamber, 28 First St. in Mount Clemens.

“Our businesses, our members, are very much struggling in most industries,” she said. “A lot of it, frankly, has to do with the unemployment benefits that are being offered to employees.”

The fact that the American Rescue Plan now also calls for employees to receive fully subsidized health insurance through COBRA, with employers being reimbursed for costs through a refundable tax credit, from April 1 to Sept. 1, is “making it less attractive for people to come back to work,” she said.

Lovati said she has heard from her members that some restaurant owners are now cooking because they can’t find employees, and even those who are raising wages and offering signing bonuses aren’t necessarily having any better luck. She mentioned a fast-food chain in New Baltimore hiring at $12 an hour and offering a $500 signing bonus.

“I’m telling some restaurants, even that is not enough to get people to come in,” Lovati said. “They’re still not attractive enough to sign.”

It’s affecting all facets of business: delivery times for items in production are longer and, in the case of retail and restaurants, some have reduced their hours of operation.

“The people who want to work can only work so much, so a lot of time, you’re seeing reduced hours, reduced days of operation,” she explained.

Focht said he had to increase wages to get people to apply for jobs, but he needs the help to keep up with the demand for his services.

“The last year, since COVID hit, we’ve been extremely busy,” he said. “Definitely, with the pay scale going up, obviously the cost of labor is going to have to go up.

“This has been a trying year. Trying to get people to work, trying to get the work done on time and ... get it done properly, and trying to keep the customers happy.”

Not every owner is having problems, however. Jeff Anderson counts himself among one of the lucky ones, he said.

“I’ve been pretty blessed so far,” said the owner of Hungry Howies, 31400 Harper Ave. “The last year, I haven’t had really that much of a difficult time finding help. I’ve been really fortunate. I have a crew that’s been with me for quite a while now, a pretty loyal crew.”

He said he has hired a few new employees during the pandemic.

“My heart goes out to a lot of these other business owners that have really been struggling,” he said. “I guess I got lucky.”

Unemployment benefits were a good thing when people couldn’t find jobs or it wasn’t safe to return to the workplace, but that is not the case now, Lovati said. She pointed to the availability of vaccines and the low COVID-19 case numbers as metrics that show “it’s time to get back to work.”

“If we can follow the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration), they are still talking about following safe practices,” she said. “We can go back to work safely. We need to. As a country, we have to.

“I think the most impactful way is to talk to our legislators, let them know what our businesses are facing, and then get that unemployment reduced for those who can return to work safely.”