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Why are Oregon restaurants still struggling to find workers?

Oregon restaurants are trying - and failing - to hire workers and staff back. For most restaurants, that means a skeleton crew, limited tables and shorter hours.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Drive around Oregon - or anywhere in the country - and you'll see 'We're hiring' signs all over.

It's especially obvious in the service industry, which was hit hard during the pandemic. As the state reopens, restaurants are struggling, trying to staff up again.

Even with high demand, the hospitality industry is slow to recover.

"We're as busy as we can be from open to close relative to what we can manage and manage well," Besaw's and The Solo Club owner Cana Flug said. "It's just fundamentally changed everything."

"Now we're trying to reopen, trying to get back to normal. And, yeah, it's a challenge," Nate Tilden, who owns several restaurants in Portland, including Bar Casa Vale, said. "It's not like we can hit a light switch and go back to it. We have to go through this process."

From fine dining to fast food, Oregon restaurants are trying - and failing - to hire workers and staff back up. For most restaurants, including Bar Casa Vale and Besaw's, that means a skeleton crew, limited tables and shorter hours.

Tilden is line cooking a few nights a week and the restaurant is only open five hours four days a week.

Besaw's isn't open for indoor dining and also limited their hours.

"I can't push harder on my staff right now to be open unless we have more bodies," Tilden said. "It's been super challenging finding bartenders, cooks and servers."

With summer-time particularly prime for restaurants in the Columbia River Gorge and on the Oregon Coast, Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA) says owners there are worried. They make most of their money for the year in the summer.

"We have a lot of operators that are having to not be able to have full hours. They'd like to be open in a time that they need to get back on their feet financially," ORLA Director of Government Affairs Greg Astley said.

ORLA cites a few reasons why restaurants are struggling to find workers:

  • employees have options since everyone is hiring all at once
  • people are still getting expanded unemployment benefits
  • parents have to stay home and take care of their kids
  • many people left the industry; the pandemic and yo-yoing shut-downs created too much uncertainty

"People were able to shift careers and find a different space to be in for a job," Astley added. "We've seen all kinds of incentives, we've seen hiring bonuses, retention bonuses, higher hourly wage benefits being offered."

Ultimately restaurant owners say this issue - and the pandemic as a whole - exposed flaws and offer a chance to change the industry for the better.

"It's a lot for a lot of people to conceptualize going back to how it was," Flug said, "We're having to reimagine what this looks like."

Restaurant owners say higher starting wages, even tip structures and better, more equitable hiring are all good things coming out of the pandemic. They think in time restaurants will become more efficient and the culture will change.

But they do worry more restaurants will close if they can't staff up and meet demand.