Evelyn and Olive’s Restaurant owner Damion Hype made some unconventional moves to keep the Edge District eatery rolling through the pandemic with minimum impact on employees. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Jobs are open across the country, millions of them but, it seems, no one to fill them.

And for Memphis and Shelby County, tourism and businesses associated with it are suffering. 

Beverly Robertson

“The shortage of employees in the hotel and hospitality industry is threatening the tourism trade in Memphis,” said President and CEO Beverly Robertson of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

“When a business is dependent on a certain volume of employees to open, such as a hotel, and those employees are not available, that is devastating for businesses that depend on hotels being operational.”

The food and beverage industry is seeing the detrimental effects of this shortage of service employees as well, said Robertson.

“It is getting tougher for restaurants to operate with this shortage,” said Robertson. “Restaurants will have to make some adjustments and look at opening three or four days out of the week, instead of their normal operating schedule. Small, local businesses are the hardest hit.”

Tourism and businesses in Memphis and Shelby County are not alone in suffering the effects of a diminished work force. The restaurant industry in major cities across the country has been particularly hard hit by the worker shortage

One local labor advocate says conditions before the pandemic in the restaurant industry are to blame.

Lily Nicholson

“How many more sacrifices must the working class make?” said Lily Nicholson, an organizer of Memphis Restaurant Workers United.

“It is simple. The shortage of workers in this industry is simply human beings responding to incentives. Other jobs are paying more and offering incentives and benefits unavailable to restaurant employees. These workers don’t want to continue to feel exploited.”

Statistics show that warehousing and shipping enterprises grew steadily throughout the pandemic as buying and selling became almost exclusively electronic, online interactions.

Companies like Amazon and FedEx are offering permanent, full-time employment with higher wages, medical coverage, tuition reimbursement and other incentives to leave lower-paying jobs in the service industries.

“The employee shortage is damaging to Memphis because it is a city heavily traveled,” said Robertson. “It is essential that hotels remain open to meet the demand of tourists coming in. Hotels are going to have to re-evaluate the business model if they are going to compete with other industries that have elevated wages to $15, $17, or $20 an hour.”

Many agree that employees are recalibrating their lives as they return to full-time employment, post-pandemic. 

Lower-paid employees in the hospitality and restaurant industries are pursuing other career trajectories that offer better pay, better conditions, and opportunities to advance.

Ernest Strickland

President and CEO of the Black Business Association of Memphis (BBA) Ernest Strickland agrees with Robertson, that restaurants, hotels, and other service-oriented enterprises must make changes to compete for employees.

“During the pandemic, we saw uncertainty being reflected in capital investments,” said Strickland. “Employees sat on the sidelines. Now certainty and confidence are returning and companies must make some readjustments and reassess. “Now is a great time for employers to tell their stories. Now is the time to look at raising wages, revisiting hiring criteria, re-thinking the business model, if businesses are going to compete for the workforce.”

One restaurant in Memphis that has not suffered from the shortage of employees is the Edge District’s Evelyn and Olive’s Restaurant at 630 Madison Ave.

Call it luck, a hunch or just plain, old business savvy. 

Owner Damion Hype made some unconventional moves as restrictions from the pandemic began to set in.

Damion Hype, owner of Evelyn and Olive’s Restaurant, puts a premium on positive interaction with restaurant-goers. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we did some things to absorb costs to keep all our employees working,” said Hype. “Our curbside, to-go orders kept everything going. 

“My stepmother and father, Caroline and Wayne Lumsden, do the cooking in the back and sometimes come out front to help. We are all owners, and we tried to make decisions that would keep our employees.”

Because adjustments were made by this family-owned restaurant to retain employees, the eatery is fully operational with no effects of the employee shortage. Pick-up and delivery orders still are increasing bottom-line profits. Business is still great, said Hype.

The worker shortage means slower service at some restaurants, bars and cafés, which is a concern not just for diners, but for businesses that fought hard to survive the economic pain caused by the pandemic.

“Think of all our attractions — the Zoo, Stax, Beale Street and so many other tourism favorites,” said Robertson. “The hotels must remain open, and this may mean paying higher wages and offering attractive benefits. It’s tough when you depend on a number of people to remain open. Other businesses are offering sign-on bonuses and other incentives. Hotels must compete.”

Some national, state and local politicians, mostly Republicans, along with business and industry executives, blame the federal $300 weekly unemployment supplement payment program as a disincentive to returning to low-paying jobs. The program is scheduled to end Sept. 6.

However, Tennessee has joined 26 other states that have moved to end the program immediately or shorten the payment period.  Tennessee is scheduled to stop the supplemental payments Saturday (July 3).

Lee said Tennesseans have access to more than 250,000 jobs across the state, which have remained open.

“Unemployment benefits are ending,” said Robertson. “Employers are hoping and praying those employees come back to work. But, wages and benefits in hotels and restaurants have to compete with other industries, if they are going to retain the volume of employees necessary to remain open. That’s just the bottom line.”