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Local restaurants still feel effects of COVID as they struggle to find workers

LAURA JAMESON/THE EXPRESS Restless Oaks owners and operators Jim and Lori Maguire, at left, and owner Robert Maguire, standing at right, chat with customers on Friday afternoon.

LOCK HAVEN — Clinton County hasn’t been spared from a nationwide crisis.

“Now hiring” signs and banners are on windows and outside businesses across America as restaurants and stores struggle to fill positions left vacant during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And eateries in Clinton County are no different as they also are facing the challenge of finding workers.

Many have adjusted hours, even closing for days at a time due to low staffing and a struggle to get people to fill positions.

For many, finding kitchen staff is proving to be their biggest challenge.

LAURA JAMESON/THE EXPRESS Restless Oaks Manager Betsy Moore hands a plate to owner Lori Maguire Friday morning during breakfast at the restaurant. The restaurant was forced to close for nearly a week due to a shortage of cooks. They’ve begun operating under new, limited hours while they continue to search for employees.

Restless Oaks in McElhattan, Creekside Restaurant in Mill Hall and Broken Axe Brew House in Lock Haven are all in search of cooks.

“Ideally we need five cooks and we don’t have five, we have two. And we need five to run efficiently,” Lori Maguire said. Maguire owns and operates Restless Oaks with her husband Jim.

The restaurant was closed for almost a week, reopening on June 17, because of staff shortage. And they’ll be operating under limited hours Thursday through Sunday.

“We advertised and the high school kids have come out in full force. They’ve been wonderful applying for jobs,” she said.

Unfortunately, those applicants are unable to fill the positions they desperately need, she continued.

At Creekside Restaurant, Donna Monoski and her co-owner Zach Moyer have had trouble filling open positions throughout the restaurant.

Monoski said Moyer has been working in the kitchen at night to help keep things running while they search for three full-time cooks.

“We have three full-time and one part-time and then my partner. Zach is cooking at night every night just to keep the place going,” Monoski said.

Creekside has begun closing on Tuesdays to give current employees a break and has been giving out overtime, Monoski said. She noted her waitress manager has been working doubles on Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes staying all day Sundays to ensure the restaurant has enough staff to get by.

Nick Hawrylchak, owner of the Broken Axe, said finding kitchen staff has been a real challenge since January. Since the beginning of the year he’s been able to hire one part-time kitchen worker.

“We finally, partly filled one of our positions in the kitchen but I started in January (and) used Indeed and Facebook and all the other resources I could think of. It took about four months,” Hawrylchak said.

To alleviate some of the pressure on his staff, the Broken Axe is closed on Mondays.

In total, Hawrylchak said he had five full-time employees and six part-timers before the pandemic. “Right now we have four full-timers and the rest are part-time. The part-timers are little more restrictive so even though I have close to the same numbers, they can’t cover the same amount of hours,” Hawrylchak said.

Limited schedules for part time employees is an issue at Creekside, too, Monoski said.

At the century old Texas Lunch, owner Phil Anastos said he needs about 14 to 15 employees to run the restaurant smoothly. He currently has nine employees and has slightly adjusted his hours six days out of the week.

“I’m trying to take care of them and also trying not to burn them out,” Anastos said.

In the eyes of these employers, the extra unemployment compensation being given to those out of work during the pandemic seems to be a driving force behind this lack of workers.

Lori and Jim believe one of the reasons behind this issue is unemployment compensation and the extra amount being given out.

Monoski also believes this to be the case, noting that Creekside has received calls from individuals who request information they can place in the unemployment system to show they’ve been applying to jobs, without actually filling out an application.

Anastos and Hawrylchak agree to some extent, but also believe there are other factors involved.

“I think the unemployment, but I also feel they’ve driven a lot of workers out of the industry. A lot have changed occupations,” Anastos said.

Hawrylchak also believes many employees left the food service industry during the pandemic, but noted other possible reasons behind the worker shortage in the area.

“I think everything is complicated and nuanced. There’s definitely an impact with the unemployment, which people needed so I’m not bashing it,” he said.

Hawrylchak referenced part time mothers leaving their work place during the pandemic and Lock Haven University having more than half its student population remaining remote as other factors.

“I don’t blame one thing,” he said.

It’s also been a challenge for local restaurants to compete with chains and larger corporations that are offering sign-on bonuses or increasing their starting wage.

“The competition like Walmart are paying a lot more money,” Jim Maguire said.

Monoski feels the imbalance between small businesses and corporations is wrong. Many like Creekside are unable to compete with increased hourly rates while still keeping their heads above water.

“I don’t think it’s fair that these companies are putting out these incentives because it’s just hard on everyone else. It’s a competition,” she said.

Anastos said he hasn’t reached a point where he needs to consider changing his rate of pay.

Hawrylchak said he’s constantly evaluating his pay rate.

“I’ve been pretty aggressive with my pay scales. I always felt I was at a pretty fair place. I’ve definitely been assessing all of that and assessing my staff to make sure my current staff are respected in that sense,” he said.

In the years these restaurant owners have been in the business, they’ve never seen a worker shortage like this.

“I always had a pretty humbling stack of applicants previous to this. So this searching for four or five months is definitely new. And even previously when I managed I never really experienced this lack of applicants,” Hawrylchak said.

Lori simply replied with “never” when asked about Restless Oaks nearly 40 years in business.

The same could be said for Creekside, according to Monoski. She and Moyer have run the restaurant for seven years after taking it over from the Aungst family.

For these restaurants, the future of their business can be a bit uncertain given the current situation.

Lori and Jim would like to return Restless Oaks’ schedule to normal, but aren’t sure when they will be able to.

“A lot of our customers are elderly and it’s their socialization. We kind of really struggle with that and letting them down,” Lori said.

“We’d like to get back to take care of them, but I don’t want to do this halfway. We want to do it right,” Jim added.

If the worker shortage continues, Monoski said Creekside would more than likely have to close another day or reduce hours.

“Especially if we lose any more cooks. There’s no way we can keep up. It’s overwhelming for everyone,” Monoski said.

Anastos said he’s considered what the options may be for the Texas, but preferred not to discuss them.

Hawrylchak is hopeful that the industry will eventually return to the norm.

“I think its going to be stressful… it’s not going to be all of a sudden hundreds of positions filled. Every restaurant is looking for people so it’s not going to be a quick fix,” he said. “But I think we’ll be alright. We’ve got some great people that have been loyal and kept us going.”

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