EMMA ROUTLEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Point S Tire & Auto Service owner Rory Tyler is among several business owners who said these are the most difficult hiring conditions they can remember.

Local business owners who have suffered and – somehow – survived this far through the pandemic are eager to ramp up and super-serve customers ready to socialize, shop, eat, drink and be merry.

A lack of hireable employees is threatening to make it all go bust.

The state’s oscillating “risk level” remains an immediate challenge, particularly for restaurants and bars trying to meet guidelines, customer needs and business expenses. County health officials are expected to raise the risk level to “High” this week.

Meanwhile, business owners are trying to navigate on-again/off-again rules. And while the economic stimulus packages and vaccines have combined to help the economy bounce back in March, that optimism has been tempered by the Covid surge and the difficulty in finding employees. 

“In a word: Terrible,” Point S owner Rory Tyler said of the hiring market. “I know there are a lot of factors for the situation; applicants are few and far between.”

He’s not alone. 

More than a dozen business owners in our area said they were having similar difficulty finding a qualified candidate pool, let alone a reliable employee. In fact, one local restaurant owner said he had six people contact him for a position; only two followed through and showed up for interviews, and one was hired. That person quit during the first week on the job.

EMMA ROUTLEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

A common sign: Local businesses, like Mezza Luna in Springfield, seeking qualified help during the pandemic.

There are plenty of reasons behind the scarcity of job-seekers. Among the factors, federal relief checks and unemployment insurance have made it a disincentive to return to work. 

More than one small business owner said discussions of a $15-per-hour minimum wage might be creating unrealistic expectations for new hires and entry-level workers. 

Shauna Neigh, chief executive officer of the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce, said many downtown mom-and-pop shops have been cautious about re-hiring. 

“I don’t think anybody has gone full-capacity,” she said. “Most of our downtown businesses were not quite trusting enough to bring back full staff” because of fluctuating risk levels.

Neigh also noted that the Cottage Grove Dairy Queen was closed this past weekend due to a lack of staffing. She relayed a story of a man who told the Chamber staff he advertised for a welder last year and received 24 applications. The same job was posted this year and the man has not received a single application.

“Help Wanted” signs on buildings and social media posts have been especially prevalent for restaurants. And it’s not just about staffing for indoor dining during “Low Risk” windows. My Boys Pizza of Creswell has been waiting to launch its new fried chicken menu, but hiring the staff to accommodate the expanded operation has been difficult, its owners said. 

With the county’s expected move to “High Risk” on Friday, April 23, restaurant and retail store owners might not be as desperate for more help, all of a sudden. That constant fluctuation of “risk level” conditions could also be another reason employees are hesitant to return to the workforce, several owners said. “It might have taken someone a long time to get in the system; then they go back to work and potentially are laid off again in a week or so. It’s tough for everyone,” said one who asked to remain anonymous.

The Covid numbers are not encouraging, county health officials said Tuesday, and Lane County could even move to the “Extreme Risk” level within the next few weeks. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, Lane County had 11,735 total cases to date, with 70 new cases reported Monday and 430 cases in the past seven days; there were 144 total deaths, and 18 people currently hospitalized. Cases by age group in the past two weeks were 34% for ages 20-29, 19.7% for 10-19, and 12.8% for 30-39. 

In the past two weeks, Springfield had 222 cases, Creswell recorded 11 cases, Cottage Grove had 14, and Pleasant Hill had “one to nine cases.”

As of 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the number of Lane County residents who were fully vaccinated was 92,509 (+1,299 since the previous day); people who received the first dose only was 60,658; and total doses administered was 239,654.