ITHACA, N.Y. — Pre-pandemic, Bickering Twins, like many downtown restaurants, was thriving with more than 20 employees and regular customers filling tables. Now, the customers have returned without staff to fill their orders –– a familiar story for many Ithaca businesses struggling to fill their ranks.
But the ‘labor shortage’ as it’s been called by experts and national media outlets, is really something more. It’s a power flip as time away from their jobs, and unemployment benefits supplementing workers’ wages have led to those working in high-stress environments like food service and manufacturing to demand higher wages and improved conditions before even considering going back to their jobs.
Twins and owners of the popular downtown spot Kevin and Corey Adelman, whose original vision was to bring fresh and authentic Latin American flavors to their beloved college town, have found their days consumed by managerial busy work and training college students to serve as full-time staff. The twins currently operate their full-service restaurant with just 15 employees and have entered a cycle of searching for new hires.
“In many ways, we’ve been able to be staffed properly, but just barely,” Kevin Adelman said. “Me and my brother [Corey] devote a significantly larger amount of time to hiring and have honestly stepped away from more of the more operational side.”
Adelman added that on top of just hiring, he’s found employee retention nearly impossible. He noted that he was expecting many of his pre-pandemic employees would come back when the restaurant reopened for business last year, but that was not the case.
Other downtown restaurants the Ithaca Voice spoke to echoed the same story –– For Brittany and Dmitry Serebryany, co-owners of Waffle Frolic, staffing is at a new low. Before the pandemic, the duo employed 25 people and was open seven days a week. Now, Waffle Frolic is operating on a five-day or sometimes four-day a week schedule with only six employees. Josh Eckenrode, the owner of Cafe Dewitt said he’s down from 25 employees to just eight and has discontinued his full-service dining.
Like Bickering Twins, Eckenrode was not able to retain most of his staff after reopening and was forced to start the hiring process nearly from scratch. Cafe Dewitt retained three employees, including the previous owner, Eckenrode and his long-time chef.
“Luckily, I retained my head chef through the whole pandemic which is one of the main reasons why we’re still here,” Eckenrode said.
In an attempt to boost hiring, Cafe Dewitt has attempted to increase staff wages in front-of-house and back-of-house positions to be competitive alongside other local employers.
Bickering Twins has taken a similar approach –– adding an 18 percent service charge as a way to increase wages.
Though all three employers have significantly increased their wages, Eckenrode, Adelman and the Serebryanys are still trying to attract applicants interested in what they have to offer.
“Part of me feels as if people’s attitude towards work is slightly different. I just feel like what we can offer is not good enough ever … There’s added pressure to pay more and I did that, but I question if what we offer will ever be good enough,” Adelman said.
Adelman recounted listening to an episode of The New York Times podcast “The Daily” about the downturn in hiring and employee retention and heard a cook recount how their 80 hour week job at a high-end restaurant just didn’t seem worth it. He said he understands this mindset but can’t help feeling hopeless sometimes.
“I don’t really know what the replacement is, but it just seems like people have put their foot down and said that they’re not willing to do this,” Adelman said.
The Serebryanys echoed this helpless feeling, saying they’ve nearly run out of options to make their business a more desirable place to work.
“We will be as reasonable as we can for our customers, but we do have to make some price adjustments to make sure our employees are being paid competitive wages,” Dmitry said. “Come wintertime, maybe the market will change, and maybe come September when they stop these checks something else may change as well.”.
Who are the newly unemployed?
Despite rising wages, employees across Tompkins County appear to be weighing their options in favor of staying away from high-stress and high-risk jobs.
One Ithaca resident, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears over losing her unemployment benefits, cited health concerns as a reason for staying away from work.
Before becoming unemployed, she was working as an independent contractor in event planning and assisting in getting a new cafe off the ground.
The pandemic put a pause on both those projects, in turn leading her to apply for unemployment –– a task that proved difficult.
“I would try every few months but wouldn’t get anything. For a long time, I was relying on mutual aid and food donations and the eviction moratorium.”
However, since receiving the benefits she says she has no plans to go back to the restaurant industry, citing high morbidity statistics among workers and the spread of the Delta variant locally.
“It freaked me out and made me not want to take on that risk [returning to food service],” she said. “In addition to all that, I have a long-term partner who suffers from a heart condition and is immunocompromised… It’s an additional consideration I have to make.”
A former employee working a warehouse job at another small company, who also asked to remain anonymous out of fear of backlash, has found a passion for community-oriented work since being let go.
After they were furloughed and eventually fired from their warehouse position, this Ithaca local was able to find a passion for volunteering. Since being fired, they have been living off unemployment benefits, which bring their take-home pay close to what they were previously making while employed.
“I just started volunteering at a couple of different organizations and now I’m kind of just being subsidized by the government to do that work which is nice,” they said. “If I can keep doing that, I’d love to.”
Taking time away from their manual labor position has allowed them to find a passion in local service work and realize the detriments their job puts on themself and their employees.
They said they don’t plan on seeking out other employment opportunities in the warehouse industry anytime soon. They believe that the pandemic allowed them to realize the toxic nature of workforce culture.
“F*ck the small businesses around here,” they said. “I think you are going to have to pay me a lot to become invested at all ever again.”
Despite looming threats of unemployment pandemic benefits being reduced significantly in less than a month, they said they are hoping they will be able to continue doing their volunteer work as long as they can.
“We have enough resources that people don’t have to be ruining their bodies and minds to just make rent,” they said. “I think I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
Even those not making as much as they did before they lost their jobs are not willing to seek employment in industries facing the shortage. Art Burke, a driver and trainer at the bus company Swarthout Coaches, said he wasn’t satisfied living off his unemployment, but also wouldn’t take just any job.
“I wasn’t making as much money while unemployed, but I was making enough to keep up on my bills, which at the end of the day is all I really care about,” Burke said.
Burke said he valued his employers and his job at Swarthout and was willing to wait for them to hire him back.
A national issue.
While some experts are calling the current crisis a “labor shortage,” workers across the country are saying the pandemic allowed them to see the faults within the industry they work in, forcing employers to reconsider how their businesses are run.
This finding is confirmed in new data from the New York State Department of Labor which shows Ithaca leading the pack in low unemployment with just a 4.3 percent rate despite stories from employers. That means people in Ithaca are returning to work –– just not in the low-paying, high-stress jobs with help hiring signs plastered on their front windows.
“Even though we are bouncing back according to the gross macro data and that data is often based on GDP and investments, that doesn’t necessarily reflect Main street,” Assemblymember for the 125th District Anna Kelles said.
Ian Greer, director of Cornell University’s Industrial Labor Relations Co-Lab and senior research associate, confirmed essentially what employees told the Ithaca Voice –– that the conditions of their jobs heavily impact the desire to go back to them.
“At least when we were doing our research, employers were really struggling to provide the kinds of jobs that would and could attract workers that would stay in those jobs,” Greer said.
“I think there’s a bit of a learning curve for employers in the pandemic to figure out how to set up jobs in a way where workers can take them and keep them.”
In his final 104-page report titled, “The New Possible, Innovative Workforce Development and Skills Map for Tompkins County,” Greer and his team of researchers explored how the pandemic continues to impact the local economy and the ways employers and employees can mitigate the current crisis.
The report surveyed dozens of employers in Tompkins county and offered eight separate solutions to aid the current workforce crisis that has been highlighted during the pandemic. Greer explored job quality, benefits and wages to be among the key characteristics that separated a “good” job from other employment opportunities.
In his research, Greer also dove into unemployment pandemic benefits and community reactions behind them.
“There are a lot of studies out there that show that the incentive effects of unemployment benefits are quite small … Maybe we need unemployment benefits that actually help people survive,” Greer said, “…without taking the jobs that are on offer because that would push employers to offer better quality jobs.”
While talking with The Ithaca Voice, Kelles said the major flaw she sees with people blaming unemployment benefits is that the system had cracks to begin with.
“There are many people who are getting more income from unemployment… combined during the pandemic than they were getting even before the pandemic, but we need to ask ourselves why. If these amounts were calculated by the state as to what they thought people would need then why are they so much higher than what people are actually making?” Kelles said.
Pandemic unemployment benefits are set to end on Sept. 6. However, local officials and researchers have mixed opinions on whether the impact will be good or bad on Ithaca locals.
Mayor Svante Myrick said that he believes when these pandemic benefits end, continuing diligent public service and COVID precautions will be key to ensuring a smooth transition for many.
“Locally, we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is getting money in the hands of those who need it, with rental assistance especially,” Myrick said, “And try to fight this latest surge of COVID by taking common sense, you know masking policy and encouraging vaccinations, thinking that way that even if unemployment benefits expire come September. There will be enough jobs available for folks to go back to work.”
Kelles raised the question of whether the evaporation of these benefits would be in the best interest of workers considering the rise in variant cases nationally.
“Humans are ingenious. People are going to find solutions, but the question we should be asking is, are these solutions going to be healthy, mentally and physically for all members of the family?” Kelles said.
Greer was the only individual who stated a hard fast opinion against revoking these benefits, and went as far as to call them disappearing on Sept. 6 a “catastrophe.”
While researchers and public officials have their opinions on the next steps for the ongoing crisis, employers and the unemployed alike are left wondering what the future holds and what to think moving forward.
Myrick said he plans on taking Greer’s report into serious consideration and believes it will ease the process of correcting an issue that is multifactorial.
“We’re taking it seriously. It’s a good report, and you’ll see that’s a really multisector problem that requires multiple levels of collaboration between us and Tompkins County, the largest employers, and small businesses to deliver the workforce planning,” Myrick said.
Kelles said she believes Greer’s eight suggestions are the best first steps to be taken in a long road toward recovery.
“In any catastrophe, there is always an opportunity to reflect on ways in which you want to build back differently,” Kelles said. “It’s an opportunity to address the fundamental cracks in our system and that is the case in any reality.”
For now, employers Adelman, Eckenroad, and the Serebryany’s are left with seemingly unfillable holes in the daily operations of their businesses and a sense of uncertainty for the future.
For Burke, work at Swarthco is picking up again but he still collects unemployment some weeks where work isn’t as steady. The two other unemployed people are unsure of their next steps and are applying for jobs where they believe they will be valued for their skills and receive proper compensation.