Staffing shortages continue to affect Chowan County businesses as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third calendar year.
According to Edenton-Chowan Chamber of Commerce Director Susan Creed, nearly all businesses in Chowan County have been affected by staff shortages within the last year.
Last May, a job fair was held on the lawn of John A. Holmes High School to attract potential new employees. The turnout was less than expected, however.
“The Chamber of Commerce is aware of the challenges our businesses are having with hiring and maintaining employees,” Creed said at the time.
Gains have been made, albeit slowly, in the months following. The unemployment rate for Chowan County has fallen to 3.5%, as of last update in November, down from 4.0% in September.
Some businesses in town are fully staffed. For others, attracting employees continues to be a challenge.
At Old Colony Smokehouse on West Queen Street, Owner Adam Hughes elaborated on his business’ struggle.
“At the start of pandemic-related shutdowns, we had several employees choose to leave to take advantage of the generous unemployment benefits offered by the government,” Hughes said. “When we’ve posted job openings to try and replace the lost employees, we’ve gone months without receiving a single applicant.”
Since then, Hughes said that Old Colony has tried an increase in pay to attract new folks to work.
“We’ve increased our standard pay rates across the board in an effort to retain the staff we have, and hopefully, attract new staff. As a small business, it’s difficult to compete with free money, regardless of what type of salary we offer,” Hughes said. “Before the pandemic, we were fully staffed with full-time, adult employees. Now, the minority of our staff is full-time. This is their choice, not ours.”
He continued: “We’re hiring anybody and everybody who wants to work, even if it’s just a few hours per week. A large percentage of our current staff is students. We simply cannot find adults who want to work. We’ve advertised hiring bonuses and pay rates up to $18 per hour with no success.”
To operate at Hughes’ desired capacity, he said that Old Colony would have to employ between 30 and 35 staff members.
Currently, the business only has 20 employees.
Staff shortages at the manufacturing and wholesale levels have also resulted in dilemmas. Higher prices, inconsistent inventories and decreased quality of materials are part of the fallout.
The price of raw proteins has risen as well.
“We’re paying 115% more for raw beef brisket than we were this time a year ago,” Hughes said. “Paper goods such as cups, napkins, takeout trays, etc. are in extremely short supply. Oftentimes, we’re unable to get them. When we are, we’re paying 75-110% more than we were a year ago.”
Add in the staffing shortages at the distributor level and Hughes is left with fewer deliveries. He blames that in part due to the lack of restaurants in Edenton compared to larger towns, which take priority when only so many deliveries can be made.
Because of the shortages, Hughes said that Old Colony has been closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when they were previously open.
In addition, the Old Colony food truck has been suspended in nearby communities. Hughes also said he has had to turn away numerous catering opportunities.
“We believe our business has so much potential and it’s really disappointing that we can’t find the support to try and reach it,” Hughes said.
As shortages continue to cause disruptions across the country, thousands of workers have taken to general strikes or walkouts to demand equitable pay, better working environments and benefits such as health insurance.
At Albemarle Boats on Midway Drive, expanding the company benefits package and adding bonuses has been critical to try and attract a larger workforce, according to General Manager Burch Perry.
“In an effort to attract and add motivated team members, we have continued to add to our excellent benefits package,” Perry said. “In addition to medical, vision, life, dental, 401K and vacation, we have recently added an attendance bonus and will start working a four day, 10 hour work week schedule in the new year.”
In a June to July 2021 poll from YouGov — a market research and data analytics firm — out of the 23,000 surveyed, 71 percent of full-time American workers say that they would prefer a four-day, 10-hours-a-day work week.
On the other side of town at Colony Tire, things are a bit different.
Colony Tire President Scott Creighton attributes the business’ flourishing employee base to the hard work of managers and human resource personnel, as well as higher pay.
“We are basically full of employees,” said Creighton. “We have had to pay more than usual to hire and retain employees, and in some cases we have paid sign-on bonuses.”
Creighton does note, however, that the road to this point has been difficult.
“I don’t really want to imply that it hasn’t been a struggle over the last few years, because it has,” Creighton said. “It has probably gotten a little easier since the government isn’t paying quite as much to just stay home, but we have a great group of managers and human resource people who have worked harder than ever to fill the needed positions.”
Going forward, the Chamber of Commerce may soon put together a group looking to address any remaining staffing concerns in the area.
“My plan is to form a workforce development committee in the new year,” Creed said. “To focus on how we can partner the schools and local businesses together to work on a long term employment plan for the county.”
“The ongoing labor and staff shortage is a major concern for all of us at the chamber,” said Ted Haigler, president of the chamber’s Board of Directors. “We will continue to work with the Chowan County Public School System, the College of the Albemarle and local businesses to do what we can to help fill the need.”