There is a shortage of waitresses and kitchen staff for restaurants in Oxford. As employees demand higher wages following the pandemic, small businesses are struggling to keep up.
“Our starting pay is higher than minimum wage and we still cannot get people to work,” said Sarah Strickland, a manager at Phillips Grocery. “Before the pandemic we used to have people fairly frequently ask if we were hiring, but now we can’t get anyone in the door.”
Several major fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks offer as much as $15-17 an hour in Oxford, forcing small businesses to raise their wages in order to be competitive. Since the pandemic, the restaurant industry nationwide offers 1.7 million less jobs than they did prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“Last summer in the thick of COVID, I think people were so desperate for a chance to leave their house that restaurants that offered curbside ended up doing ok,” said Strickland.
In Oxford, business owners estimate almost 40% of their staff in local restaurants are college students. Even with the high demand for work, however, restaurants are unable to find college age employees who are willing to work for the hourly rate that they can afford.
“During COVID, I was making more with the stimulus checks and unemployment than I am currently as a waitress,” Gabby Merrill, a recent Ole Miss graduate, said. “I like working and feeling as though I am earning my money, but it was a hard transition from staying home and getting paid to going back to work and making less.”
As the country continues the process of reopening after the pandemic, restaurants feel the strain of having fewer employees. Dine in restaurants on the Square in Oxford saw a 35% overall growth of business once the mask mandate was lifted, but did not have the staff to handle the amount of consumers.
“This has been one of the busiest springs I can remember,” Jean Gentry, the manager of Phillip’s Grocery, said. “We had two of our longtime staff members quit because they were making more money working in other industries, and we cannot find people who are willing to work.”
Short staffed chain restaurants such as McDonald’s in Oxford do not anticipate having staffing issues after the summer as they have raised their wages in order to compete with other industries. However, small businesses that cannot afford to pay their staff the same rates as national chains worry that these employee demands will have catastrophic effects.
“We recently had to put a sign up because customers were angry that we had raised our prices,” said Strickland. “Unfortunately it is not something we can avoid as a small business, the price for everything has gone up.”