Steve Falabella filled his staff at his new bistro, but it wasn’t easy. (Photo: John C. Cotey)

The signs are all over — on the front of businesses reducing their hours because they don’t have enough employees, a drive-through posting asking for your patience due to a historic shortage of workers and another sign offering a $500 bonus and a free sub sandwich with every shift.

At places just opened, like the Falabella Family Bistro, there’s no need to post a Now Hiring sign because, well, no one seems to be reading it.

While owner Steve Falabella will be able to open his new bistro in The Grove with (barely) a full staff within the next week or too, he also is opening a second 900º Woodfired Pizza place, like his popular location at the Shops of Wiregrass, right next door.

“If I had to open that today, there’s no way I could,” he says. 

Due in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the governmental response to it, jobs aren’t hard to come by, but employees are, says Falabella, who owns three businesses in Wesley Chapel.

Here’s the deal: many folks are unwilling to seek work at businesses that don’t pay as much as they currently are getting from unemployment. 

At the height of the pandemic, Congress expanded federal unemployment insurance (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation) to $600 a week. It is currently $300 a week, in addition to the Florida’s state-level benefit of $275 weekly (which is typically for 12 weeks, but was extended during the pandemic).

The majority of those on unemployment assistance, then, receive nearly $600 a week, or the equivalent of working 40 hours while being paid $15 an hour.

For anyone paying less than $15/hour, or even more in a lot of cases, it’s tough to compete.

“It’s not just us, it’s the entire country,” says Falabella. “It’s a sensitive topic.”

Falabella chooses his words carefully, as a result. The issue has strong political overtones. While it has increased concerns about the growth of the welfare state, it also has shined a light on what some feel are unfair wages, causing some small business owners to reassess compensation.

However, the level of unemployment pay is keeping some home, instead of in the workforce, says Fallabella.

“It’s not a theory,” says Falabella. “I talk to people I want to hire back that left months ago, and they tell me as soon as the unemployment dries up they’ll be back out there looking (for a job).”

Signs like this ask for patience as some local businesses are shorthanded.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Floridians who receive unemployment benefits will have to provide proof that they’re looking for a job, a requirement that was lifted during the pandemic but expired in May.

Florida also will withdraw from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program on June 26.

“I think it’s pretty clear now, we have an abundance of job openings,” DeSantis says.

Jamie Hess, who owns the Treble Makers Dueling Piano Restaurant & Bar in The Grove, as well as a computer repair shop, says he has been able to keep a full staff but it hasn’t been easy.

He and Falabella, as well as Joe Schembri of the Ice Dreammm Shop, who is opening his second location across the way from Falabella Family Bistro, are contemplating a shared employee program, where workers will train for all three of their restaurants and open up opportunities for them to work more hours if they choose. 

“If I can only give someone 30 hours but Steve needs someone, that person can work (10 hours for him and/) or as much as they want,” says Hess. “We want everybody making decent money where they can afford to live.”

Hess, who also owns five Subway restaurants in New York, says the pandemic drove many employees out during the lockdowns, and the lack of employees as the economy rebounds has driven many of his contemporaries out of the restaurant business altogether.

While he says he pays above minimum wage at Treble Makers, pay expectations are “getting a little out of whack.”

He said had lost a bartender recently who said she couldn’t afford to work for only $25 an hour.  He thinks the road back to pre-Covid times could be a long one.

“I think it’s going to take a long time,” Hess says. “Once the $300 (weekly federal) bonus goes away, you’ll see more people looking, but it’s probably not going to go back to the way it was.”

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