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Harvey Hinklemeyers’ “Servers Wanted” sign on May 14, 2021.

Angela Martino said they’ve stopped taking reservations from customers at their iconic Kokomo eatery, Martino’s Italian Villa. That’s because they don’t know if they’ll have enough workers to serve them.

“People want to come in for a reservations, but we can’t promise them anything, because we don’t know how many workers are going to show up,” she said.

Martino said they need to hire at least 10-12 more employees to be fully staffed and offer diners the service they’re used to. But people filing an application to work there are virtually non-existent, she said.

It’s the same story at restaurants all over Kokomo, which are scrambling to find enough workers to keep the doors open even as business surges as COVID restrictions lift and more people are vaccinated.

The local staffing issue is part of a national labor shortage that’s led to reduced operating hours at some restaurants and long wait times for customers all across the U.S. The National Federation of Independent Business found in a March survey of its own members that 42% had job openings they couldn’t fill.

Andy Smith, general manager at Harvey Hinklemeyers in Kokomo, said they need at least six or seven more workers to be fully operational, but no one is applying despite a concerted hiring push.

That means the workers they do have are putting in more hours and pulling more double shifts to make ends meet. It also means the eatery can’t open its salad bar, which was one of the most popular things there, due to short staffing.

“That’s a labor intensive area, but we can’t afford to take people away from serving to focus on that,” Smith said. “If I were to open it today, I wouldn’t have the staff to manage it.”

Teri Rose, owner of Main Street Cafe, said she’s had to cancel nearly all her catering events because she can’t find enough workers to do it. She said catering is crucial part of the business, and losing those gigs has put a major financial strain on the restaurant.

“Catering is the supplement to this business,” Rose said. “No one would have taken this on without that business. You have to have it.”

But like everywhere else, people are simply not applying for the jobs.

“I don’t even know what the answer is besides waiting it out a couple more months and hoping I can get some high school kids coming in,” Rose said.

Most local restaurant owners are blaming the lack of applications on the federal aid and unemployment benefits doled out during the pandemic, which are sometimes equal to or more than what employees would make working.

Tom Trine, co-owner of Windmill Grill, said his restaurant needs about six more employees to fully staffed, but people just won’t apply if they’re getting unemployment. That’s made hard sometimes to keep the work schedule filled out, he said.

“There are those who work harder at not working than if they just actually worked,” Trine said. “You just have to question how there are that many people that don’t want to work.”

In response, U.S. restaurants and stores are rapidly raising pay in an urgent effort to attract more applicants and keep up with a flood of customers as the pandemic eases.

McDonald’s, Sheetz and Chipotle are just some of the latest companies to follow Amazon, Walmart and Costco in boosting wages, in some cases to $15 an hour or higher.

Harvey Hinklemeyers’ Smith said they’ve also increased they’re starting wage to attract employees, but it’s hard to compete against the bank accounts of national chain restaurants.

“You can raise the pay, but there’s always a bigger corporation with a bigger wallet,” he said.

Martino said they’ve also increased their wages, but it hasn’t much done much to attract more workers, and is often a double-edged sword when they do hire someone.

She said that’s because they have to take one of their current employees to train new hires, who may only stay on for a week or two and then quit. That means the restaurant is paying two workers to do the same job during the training.

“We try to pay decent wages, but you can’t turn business down and then try to give incentives,” Martino said. “You want to treat them good, but it’s hard when you have to turn business away.”

Main Street’s Rose said with the lack of workers leading to canceled catering jobs, it’s also been difficult to find ways to offer incentives and raises to the workers she does has. She said she started giving all her employees free meals as some kind of thanks for their hard work.

In the end, Rose said, she wants to hire more workers so small businesses like her restaurant can survive another day and keep investing back in the community.

But that’s getting harder and harder to do as the labor shortage drags on without an end in site.

“If we fail, the only places you’re going to have are places run by corporations,” Rose said. “”We have to survive. There’s a need for small businesses.”

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