Layered’s robot waiter in McKinney is programmed to transport food on its built-in multi-level trays to diners. (Miranda Jaimes / Community Impact Journal)
Nir Sela said he struggled for months to find employees for his downtown McKinney breakfast and brunch. In August, the owner of the Layered restaurant brought in a robot with a friendly cat face that delivers food from the kitchen to his diners so his staff could focus on other tasks.
As more companies struggle to hire staff, especially those in the service sector, companies are ready to go further to find workers or overcome the shortage.
As of January 2020, according to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 211,000 employees worked in food establishments and drinking places in the six-county area that includes McKinney. In April 2020, that figure fell to nearly 130,000 workers. By July of this year, the number of employees in the service sector had risen to more than 219,000. Despite the surpassing of pre-pandemic figures, many local employers say it remains difficult to find workers to do so. in the face of the resumption of demand.
Lisa Hermes, president and CEO of the McKinney Chamber of Commerce, said a labor shortage existed before COVID-19 but was made worse by the pandemic.
“It’s not going to change overnight,” she said. âI think this is a more complex issue that has gone on for years. And COVID[-19] really didn’t help. It made the challenges even more real.
For some McKinney residents, Hermes said difficulties finding child care and reliable transportation, as well as the rising cost of housing, are affecting returning to work. Even before the pandemic, she said many service sector employers in McKinney often hired workers who lived in areas with more affordable housing options.
Courtney Coss, retail manager of 16 branches of the Credit Union of Texas, said several branches were understaffed, including those of McKinney and Frisco.
Most openings are remote or over the phone, which is more appealing to people these days, Coss said. And the credit union has attracted former retail and restaurant workers looking to make the transition to a different career. And yet, several locations for the credit union are still understaffed.
“We are really trying to recruit staff because it has been so difficult since last year,” she said.
Elaine Krazer is preparing to open a new concept of coffee in the historic East McKinney Flour Mill. She operates TexaKona Coffee Roasters on McDonald Street in McKinney. This new concept will expand the store and add a second location.
She just needs to find the people to endow it, she said.
“They [the workforce] have more choice, âshe said. “[There are] so many jobs that employees can now choose from. They don’t have to take the one next to it.
She said everyone, including her store, had “tightened their belts” last year when it comes to staff. But business returned “with a vengeance”. People regularly asked about job postings, she said. This is no longer the case.
âIt’s really tough and I’m worried about the opening,â she said. âI’m going to need 10 to 12 people, and I can’t imagine who it will be. “
Old emergency sites have also seen business return, said Kari Wolfe, vice president of human resources. Legacy ER has two locations in Frisco and one in McKinney, and she said those locations along with the Allen location have seen an approximately 50% to 60% increase in patient numbers due to the pandemic.
Legacy ER has grown its staff by around 25%, but it is still hiring and has a vacancy rate of around 12%, Wolfe said.
The problem these emergency rooms face is that there are more patients, but not enough staff to treat them, she said.
Karen Musa, executive dean of Collin College with a background in hospitality and food service management, said restaurants forced to close or switch to different models were causing financial stress for employees.
As businesses reopened with restrictions, employees who relied on tips were no longer doing what they were doing, said Musa, who helps oversee the college’s Institute of Hospitality and Culinary Education.
âA lot of people left because they had to provide for their families,â Musa said. “So even though [business] started to come back, they turned to another [less volatile] industry.”
The combination of customers dining out more often and less experienced restaurant workers can contribute to a perceived staff shortage, Musa said.
“The public (…) want to get back to normal,” Musa said. “But a lot of [restaurants] are not ready for this.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced in May that Texas would withdraw new federal unemployment benefits related to COVID-19 as of June 26, citing an abundance of jobs as well as about 18% of all claims that were or suspected to be fraudulent. This included the loss of a weekly additional benefit of $ 300, a move that some believed would help push people back to work.
In McKinney, the number of residents receiving unemployment benefits peaked at more than 12,500 in April 2020, a reported record for the city, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those numbers are closer to 5,400 in July, which is still a few thousand more than the 2019 numbers.
Jonathan Lewis, senior policy analyst at Every Texan, a nonprofit that advocates for improved equity in health care, education and employment, said blaming workers’ benefits involves that unemployed Texans don’t want to work.
Lewis said he believes factors such as childcare, low wages and a lack of jobs that match an employee’s skills can turn potential workers away.
âThis characterization that workers are lazy is pretty damning,â he said. âIf it’s just a $ 300 benefit that prevents people from accepting a job, [it is] a rather sad state of affairs.
Another problem that some workers face is that some wages are not high enough to pay for basic expenses.
In Collin County, the average family of four must earn $ 6,783 per month after tax, or about $ 81,400 per year, to pay for housing, food, transportation, health care, and more. necessities, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Javier Ortega, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites in McKinney, said the hotel needs to increase wages to keep the employees it has and find more.
He was able to hire a few more workers, but over the summer he and his deputy general manager worked more than 16 hours a day to make up for the understaffing.
âWe felt a great recovery about six weeks ago, and now at this hotel we are about two employees missing,â he said.
Sela said her robot was there specifically to reduce the need for servers to go back and forth from the kitchen to the tables. They can focus on kitchen work or on tabs.
But even with the robot, Layered is still looking for employees. Hiring was “impossible,” Sela said. Existing staff members have had to work overtime as there is no relief.
âThe robot does not replace any employee,â said Sela. “This robot takes a lot of pressure on my existing team which is coping with the workload.”
Industries must be creative in the face of increased competition for hiring, said Brian Medina. He is based in McKinney and is Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Strategy at Self Opportunity, a Lewisville-based recruiting solutions company. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association.
Some solutions include reviewing new employee pools, such as refugees, as well as reviewing the hiring process, Medina said. Most people view applications on their phones, and if that process is cumbersome, it results in the loss of applicants, he said.
The hiring climate is also not expected to ease anytime soon, Medina said, as restaurant models that function only as a kitchen and serve take-out – also known as ghost kitchens – become more prevalent. Other industries are also changing to require fewer workers.
“You must have a plan [to hire]. You can’t just rely on Indeed, âMedina said of the jobs website. âThere are many other resources and ways to find talent. “
Emily Jaroszewski, Anna Lotz and Erick Pirayesh contributed to this report.