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Jobs in Bellefonte and State College: Businesses struggle hiring

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A “Help Wanted” sign sits on the counter at Blonde Bistro on Friday as owner Ciara Semack receives orders.

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Restrictions have eased for Pennsylvania restaurants, but some Centre County business owners say they’re still struggling to woo workers back.

Operators of several businesses in Bellefonte and State College that have already raised their starting wages wondered aloud what more they need to do in order to reach full operating capacity.

It’s a problem faced by businesses across the country, with economists and lawmakers searching for explanations and solutions.

“Businesses are going to be on one side of this coin and say, ‘No one is willing to work for these wages that I’m offering. I’m offering $16 an hour and no one will come here.’ But you always have to think of the other side of the market,” Penn State assistant teaching professor of economics James Tierney said. “There is probably all of these workers out there saying, ‘No one is willing to pay me the amount of money that I think I deserve.’ So there has to be some sort of balance.”

Staffing challenges in an economy with high unemployment seems somewhat counterintuitive.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate shrank two-tenths of a percentage point to 6.9{5057b528e2ec7fd6c3736aa134727341eae4fdf6dd188ded3c2a814c0866380c} from April’s adjusted rate, the state Department of Labor and Industry said Friday. The national rate was 5.8{5057b528e2ec7fd6c3736aa134727341eae4fdf6dd188ded3c2a814c0866380c} in May.

Some restaurateurs point to expanded federal pandemic unemployment benefits that pay recipients $300 on top of state benefits and are scheduled to run into September as the root cause.

The Blonde Bistro used to be an about 40-seat restaurant in downtown Bellefonte until owner Ciara Semack moved into Axemann Brewery, an about 20,000-square-foot building with an occupancy of more than 500.

She has about 11 full or part-time workers on staff, but has been looking to nearly double that number for the better part of the year. Semack is prepared to offer between $10 to $17 per hour, depending on the role.

“Nobody wants to work,” Semack said. “I’m very much on the train where I think because people are able to stay at home and they’re getting their extra income until September everybody will continue to struggle for staff.”

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The kitchen staff at Blonde Bistro prepares sandwiches during the lunch rush on Friday. Abby Drey [email protected]

Hiring challenges existed in Happy Valley before the pandemic, but have only intensified since, Yallah Taco owner Hitham Hiyajneh said.

Hiyajneh — without hesitation — said he’d double his workforce immediately if he had the opportunity. He’s offering anywhere from $12 to $15 per hour.

Hotel State College & Co. Operations Director Curtis Shulman joined the chorus in pointing to expanded federal unemployment benefits as a driving factor, but conceded the value of being home increased.

Child and elder care, health risks, wages, career goals and intense competition for workers in a tight labor market are just some of the other variables. Nearly every facet of people’s work and non-work lives has been upended.

And some of the issues have been long-standing; the pandemic only hastened some of the changes workers have been pushing for.

Hotel State College — which operates a handful of downtown State College businesses, including The Corner Room, the Allen Street Grill and Bill Pickle’s Tap Room — is also heading into one of the slowest seasons of the year.

The company is looking to hire at least 60 people, on top of the about 90 already on board. Cooks could be offered about $13 per hour, while door staffers may start at $10 and pull in tips that would likely put them above $15 per hour.

There are “very few” positions that would make less than $13 per hour, Shulman said. Other companies have pushed incentives to lure workers, including Snappy’s raising its minimum hourly wage by $2 and offering bonuses to new employees.

“Wage is a consideration, but a lot of people know they’re going to make a wage that they’re going to be happy about,” Shulman said. “That doesn’t change some of the external variables that they might not be happy with or concerns they have with elder care, child care or other variables. A lot of that is out of our control; some of it’s not.”

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A hiring sign in the window of The Corner Room on Friday. Abby Drey [email protected]

Penn State Abington labor economist Lonnie Golden said enhanced federal jobless benefits are doubtlessly a factor for some people who are not working, but added that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Potential workers have more leverage to decide what job or industry is best for them. Some may have non-labor income or savings they can rely on instead of taking the first job offered to them.

The service industry, in particular, isn’t strong at offering set hours and glamorous working conditions. There are only so many complaints from hungry customers that people can handle.

“As a labor economist, I’m not surprised. This was not a high-paying job and it was a high-intensity job that isn’t for everybody,” Golden said. “Some of the people that wanted regularity and stability, they’re working regular shifts at other jobs. Restaurant owners might have to start matching that; not only the pay, but some of these scheduling issues and protections from abusive customers.”

Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are moving forward with proposed legislation that would end the state’s participation in the federal unemployment benefit-padding programs.

The bill introduced by state Rep. Jim Cox, a Republican who serves part of Berks and Lancaster counties, also provides incentives for those who remain in the workforce. Those who work at the same employer for eight consecutive weeks would receive a $300 bonus.

Democrats have pushed back, instead saying businesses should raise their minimum wage, and offer better benefits and safer work conditions to attract employees.

More than half of the nation’s states announced an early halt to the federal government’s jobless benefits. Each is led by Republicans, except for Louisiana.

The proposed bill has the support of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, with President and CEO Gene Barr saying in a statement that the labor market is in a “full-blown crisis.”

“In order to fully return to a sense of normalcy and move past the pandemic, businesses must be able to fully reopen,” Barr said. “… It’s time to get people back to work.”

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He was raised in Mifflin County and graduated from Lock Haven University.