Daniel Krause, owner of the restaurant Cracked near the University of Illinois campus, said he went into debt to stay open during the pandemic after student workers left to go home and customers stopped coming.
Ashlee Rhodes, the general manager of Jarling’s in Champaign, said she was forced to reduce the business’s hours every week after struggling to find enough staff.
Pedro Heller, owner of Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in Champaign, had to close his second location in Urbana because many employees found other jobs or had to stay home with their children.
Running a business is never easy, but it’s gotten a lot harder during what’s been dubbed the “Great Resignation” – the nationwide pandemic-induced labor shortage.
Champaign County’s unemployment rate climbed to 11% in April of 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was just three months after the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States.
Statewide, the unemployment rate shot up to over 16% in April of 2020 – the highest unemployment rate in April since 1976. The rate was 4.1% in April 2019.
Since then, statewide unemployment numbers have decreased to about 4.7%, but that’s not the only indicator of problems with labor. Prices on consumer products in Illinois continue to rise because of a lack of workers in industries like manufacturing and shipping, according to an interview with US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh with the Chicago Tribune.
But the current labor shortage isn’t just because of the pandemic.
“There was already a tight labor market prior to the pandemic,” Andrew Weaver, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, said. “The U.S. unemployment rate in Dec. 2019 was 3.6%, which is among the lowest the U.S. has experienced since WWII.”
That tight labor market was worse in “low-quality jobs” like leisure, hospitality and retail jobs, Weaver said.
When COVID-19 hit, people working in places like restaurants, retail stores and childcare were the most vulnerable to the virus.
Often, Weaver said, jobs in service industries lack flexible hours, child care assistance and healthcare benefits.
“The sectors that face the biggest challenges are the ones frankly, with the lowest job quality,” he said. “[Those employers] really haven’t had to offer a lot of flexibility or benefits to their workforces in the past to recruit them and at some level, that’s coming back to bite them.”
Over 200,000 workers left the state of Illinois between 2013 and 2019, according to a 2020 report from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Combined with an aging population who retired, the current labor market has led to huge issues with staffing for business owners, according to the same report.
Locally, many business owners aren’t sure that they’ll ever be able to bounce back.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to what it used to be before COVID,” Pedro Heller, the owner of Black Dog, said. “But we’ll just see.”
Chapter One: A labor shortage walks into a bar…
In spite of the labor shortage plaguing businesses throughout the country, one bar in Champaign isn’t at a loss for staff. Surprisingly, it’s overstaffed.
Esquire Lounge co-owner Jackie Sampson took to Facebook when the pandemic hit. What she was looking for: anyone with experience in food service to come and work.
“I must have sent 40 messages to different people trying to find people to come work for us,” Sampson said.
Now, she said the bar is full of both patrons and staff.
“We got staff back up to the point where we probably have two more people than we need,” Sampson said.
Justin McMullin bartends at Esquire. He started after Sampson reached out to him over Facebook.
But that’s not his only job. He’s also a Union pipefitter, which helps cover his essential costs.
“The plumbing job takes care of all the bills,” McMullin said. “The bartending job just gives me extra money.”
Although Esquire isn’t facing a staff shortage like many other businesses in town, Sampson said it’s not always maintainable.
“If you want quality people to not leave, you need to make a decent wage,” Sampson said.
“If other businesses in downtown Champaign are struggling, so is Esquire. A thriving downtown area full of consumers is good for everyone,” Sampson said.
Another part of success: keeping the customers happy. By keeping good staff and making good relationships with customers, Sampson said she’s doing the best she can.
“I think the most important thing is to roll with the punches, be as kind to everybody as we can be, and hope that it’s reciprocated,” Sampson said.
Chapter Two: Cracked scrambles with return to normal
In a small shop on Green Street in the middle of the University of Illinois campustown, Cracked serves popular college kid fare – tater tots, grilled cheeses and massive breakfast sandwiches.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and students were forced to go home to do online classes, owner Daniel Krause said he lost both customers and staff members.
University of Illinois student Thomas Vozenilek is also the manager of Cracked. He said he was constantly picking up shifts just to keep the business open.
“Last year we were really short staffed,” Vozenilek said. “We had like five people.”
Krause said he went into debt to keep from closing the business’ doors during the pandemic.
“All the money that we made this semester just kind of went right back into paying the debt that it took to get through the pandemic,” Krause said.
Even now with the return of students, Krause said there’s another issue: getting the supplies they need.
“On a random week, you could not get potatoes, or eggs or cheese [and] the next week you’re not getting cups, lids, straws [or] plastic,” Krause said. “And that stems from the employment shortage also.”
Through it all, Krause said the community has tried to support Cracked despite all the shortages the business faced over the last two years.
“The Champaign community has been pretty incredible and supported us really since day one,” Krause said. “It’s been incredibly exciting to see the business flood back when the students came back to town.”
Chapter Three: Supply chain woes leave cupboards bare at World Harvest
Customers roam through aisles of partially stocked shelves of items ranging from supplements to chocolate at World Harvest International Market in Champaign.
Owner Mohammad Al-Heeti said that ever since the pandemic hit, he has struggled to keep both staff and products inside the store.
“I’ve been in this business for 30 years [and] after COVID-19, everything changed,” Al-Heeti said.
As an international market, World Harvest is heavily reliant on transportation to bring products from all around the world to Champaign. But the pandemic brought supply chain issues that have threatened the market’s ability to stock their shelves.
“It’s getting very difficult to find a trucking company to bring to a city like Champaign-Urbana,” Al-Heeti said. “We are not in a major city.”
In addition to stocking the shelves, Al-Heeti now struggles to find staff to work.
“Before I used to have a lot of applications and I’d select the best,” Al-Heeti said. “These people come, they apply, we hire them and they come for two or three weeks and quit.”
Krishna Patel, the office manager, has worked at World Harvest for almost two years.
Patel said she’s trained almost 20 employees since she started working at the business.
“Most of them are not still here,” Patel said.
Employees are paid minimum wage when they start at World Harvest. If they stay, Al-Heeti said they can get a raise. But often, it’s not enough to keep them.
“At the end, they will choose the place where they can make more money,” Al-Heeti said. “I don’t blame them.”
Chapter Four: The childcare dilemma
For four weeks, Meagan Quigley couldn’t find anyone to watch her son.
Quigley, who lives in Champaign County’s Villa Grove, is mom to Morgan – a sixteen-year-old who has Autism and epilepsy.
On top of the struggle to find childcare, Quigley said she also needs to find workers who have the skills to handle his outbursts and seizures. Those happen often, she said.
“I didn’t even know how I was going to pay my bills at that point because I didn’t have any workers at all,” Quigley said. “I had nobody for almost four weeks.”
Illinois is ranked 11th for the most expensive infant care out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. Quigley said childcare is her largest expense, even exceeding her mortgage and car payments.
And when she can’t find childcare, she can’t work.
“You’ve got workers who find it difficult to get childcare that potentially keeps them out of the labor force,” Weaver said. “And you’ve got childcare workers [who are] less willing to go into the occupation or stay in the occupation when they have other options right now.”
Childcare isn’t just an issue for the Quigley’s.
The care industry has been in crisis for decades, Julie Kashen, a childcare policy researcher with The Century Foundation, said.
Care workers are often not paid enough to justify staying in the industry for long, she said.
“People who love working with children [and] are very good at working with children find themselves going over to Starbucks, where they could make more money and have health benefits,” Kashen said.
There will be almost 4.5 million job openings in home healthcare nationwide in the next decade, according to data from the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. In the next three years, there will be almost 15,000 job openings for home healthcare positions in Illinois, according to the Projections Managing Partnership.
Quigley is still hiring more people to care for Morgan as more workers quit or just stop showing up. She’s saving up to pay more for care as school lets out for summer break.
But as her biggest priority, she’ll always make sure Morgan is in good hands.
“You just take it a day at a time. I mean, it’s my life. It’s what I do,” Quigley said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Chapter Five: Labor Shortage Has Black Dog Searching for Staff
Before the pandemic hit, there were two Black Dog locations in Champaign County: one in Champaign and one in Urbana.
Today, only the Champaign location survives.
“It was sad, but it was not difficult to make,” Pedro Heller, the co-owner of Black Dog, said. “There was no option.”
That hard decision, Heller said, was because of a lot of things. But mainly, he just didn’t have the staff he needed to stay open.
“A lot of people got laid off, they found other jobs, a lot of people went into business for themselves,” Heller said. “We’ve had some people leave because of childcare issues. A lot of people decided they’ve had enough of this business and they found something more to their liking where they don’t have to work nights or weekends.”
Black Dog Smoke and Ale House is a staple in the Champaign area serving favorites like barbecue and cornbread.
In addition to raising wages for his staff, the prices of ingredients like meat also rose.
Balancing the prices of the food and the wages of the staff has been a huge challenge during the pandemic, Heller said.
“You go to a restaurant on a Friday night or a Saturday night and you see that they’re busy, and you say, ‘Wow, they’re doing good business,’” Heller said. “But this business had to succeed every day of the week.”
Now, Heller said he is focused on taking care of his Champaign location.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to what it used to be before COVID,” Heller said. “But we’ll just see.”
Chapter Six: Finding New Ways to Connect at Maize Mexican Grill
In almost every restaurant throughout Champaign County, customers will be greeted by signs that read “Now Hiring” or “Help Wanted.”
It’s no mystery to Armando Sandoval, the owner of Maize Mexican Grill, why that is.
“This is a restaurant town,” Armando Sandoval, the owner of Maize Mexican Grill, said. “We’re all basically competing with one another for employees.”
The competition between business for staff was already there. But when the pandemic-induced labor shortage struck, it got even worse, he said. One reason he lost staff, Sandoval said, is that unemployment payments and stimulus checks were paying more than he could at Maize.
“They were making more money with unemployment than they would earn if they were to come back to work,” Sandoval said.
With two locations in Champaign, Sandoval has even more issues with staffing. He also needs skilled staff that make things like homemade tortillas. And although he often doesn’t have the staff he needs and wait times are longer than usual, he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“People have shifted the way they work [and] how they live their lives so I think this is going to be our new normal,” Sandoval said.
Chapter Seven: Pandemic melts away pure bliss at Jarling’s Custard Cup
On hot summer nights, cars pile into the parking lot of Jarling’s in Champaign waiting for crispy waffle cones and smooth custard.
Although the ice cream shop always has a healthy line of customers, staff is another problem.
That’s when Ashlee Rhodes, the general manager of Jarling’s, had to reduce the shop’s hours because they couldn’t find enough people to work.
“It just got to the point where it wasn’t fair to the staff [and] it wasn’t fair to the customers,” Rhodes said.
Typically, the line of applicants is as healthy as the line of customers. But after the summer during the pandemic, people stopped filling out job applications, Rhodes said.
“Usually we have just tons of applications – it’s a non-stop thing,” she said. “It’s kind of sad that we can’t do what we used to do as long as we had been doing it.”
Pay rates for those 18 and up at Jarling’s are $13 per hour or $11 per hour for those under 18, according to Rhodes.
Now, Rhodes said she’s working to get the shop back to where it was.
“We want to get our hours back to normal. We want to get that full crew back in. We want everybody to be healthy and safe,” Rhodes said.
“We just want that normal back.”