Leann Fox would seem to have most everything a small business owner would want: loyal customers, an established location and a recognized brand.
But one thing the owner of Leann’s Parkway Café doesn’t have enough of is employees.
“We’ve had to temporarily close because we just haven’t been able to hire enough people. I’m eager to open up soon. But I just can’t find enough workers,” she told me Monday.
Now, before you write off Fox as an upstart naïve in the ways of business or someone unwilling to pay enough to attract good employees, it’s worth noting she has owned and operated her popular café on Springfield’s north side for 28 years and she offers competitive pay and benefits.
Unfortunately, her story is not a unique one. Throughout, Illinois, “Help Wanted” signs adorn stores, restaurants and other enterprises.
Some businesses have curtailed services and hours. For example, Panera Bread on Springfield’s west side has shut down its drive-thru because it lacked sufficient employees to staff it along with its dining room. Retailers such as the Dollar General in Riverton have cut back hours because they don’t have enough employees to fill their schedules.
Fox said she chose to temporarily close her business over the summer because she believes it would have hurt it more in the long run to have kept the doors open.
“When people have a bad experience at a restaurant, they remember it,” she said. “If I don’t have enough waitresses, cooks and dishwashers to do a good job, I wouldn’t want my customers to have to deal with it. Because they would remember it — and not come back.”
Despite not having any revenue coming in, Fox has continued to pay her employees during the past three months.
“I pay them $20 an hour for the average number of hours they worked each week before the pandemic,” she said. “I don’t want them to suffer while we’re shut down — and I also don’t want to lose them. They’re good workers and I want them to come back when we reopen.”
She had hoped to reopen on Aug. 28. Fox had scheduled 17 people to come in for interviews but only six showed up.
“And of those six, there really weren’t any I wanted to hire,” she said. “You look at a work history and see that someone had quit their last six jobs. I’d ask, Why? And the person would say something like, ‘They were all mean to me.’”
By any measure, Fox is a progressive employer. Not only does she offer pay and benefits well above what state and federal law require but she hires people other employers avoid.
“I’m the queen of second chances. Just because someone has made a mistake in the past doesn’t mean I’m not going to give you a chance,” she said.
In fact, two of the employees she has kept on the payroll through the summer have done prison time.
She opened the business on the northside of Springfield in 1993, when she was in her mid-20s. And for decades her business has been packed every day at noon. The Parkway is famous for its ham and bean soup. I’ll admit it. The soup is almost as good as what my mother used to make.
Just why there is a worker shortage is a bit of an open question. When daycares were closed and schools were distance learning, many parents, particularly single ones, found it difficult to work outside the home. And before COVID-19 vaccines were readily available, fear of viral exposure was pervasive.
But with public schools again teaching in-person, daycare centers open and vaccines widely available, some now blame enhanced pandemic unemployment benefits as acting as an incentive for people not to work.
We’ll soon find out if that is the underlying cause. Because this past week enhanced benefits ended for Illinoisans.
In the Land of Lincoln, the 263,000 people who received unemployment payments through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and the 189,000 people through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance saw their benefits end Sept. 4.
But Fox is skeptical whether competition with generous government benefits is the only reason there is a worker shortage.
“During the pandemic, people stayed home and spent more time with their kids and family. They liked that. And now they are reluctant to come back and work weekends and holidays. That’s when customers expect to eat and some people may be saying ‘That’s not what I want to do.’”