“Help wanted” is too mild a way to put things for restaurants in Evanston, and around the nation.

“Help needed now, desperately!” is far more accurate.

“It’s ugly out there, it really is,” says Diana Hamann, owner of the Wine Goddess in the Main/Dempster Mile district. Hamann says despite paying competitive wages for servers ($14/hour plus tips), “there is a lack of people who want to work.”

The Wine Goddess is part of the Custer Oasis, where the streets at Custer and Main are closed for outdoor dining for her shop and two restaurants.

The plan is to reopen the Oasis on May 7, but instead of operating seven days a week, Hamann says it will only be open for five. “We can’t staff it seven days,” she says. Not enough workers.

“I’ve posted on Craig’s List, have contacted agencies and Northwestern University,” Hamann says, but the response has been minimal.

Other Evanston restaurants are feeling the same pinch, such as downtown’s Smiley Brothers Brewing. Even before the pandemic, managing partner Mike Smiley says it was hard to find staff.

“You could leave a job in the morning and find a new job at night,” he says.

Now, you could probably find two or three.

It seems counterintuitive. With so many restaurants closing due to the pandemic, you would think there would be a surplus of servers, bartenders, and cooks, eagerly looking for work.

The American Restaurant Association says Illinois is down more than 100,000 restaurant jobs in the state between February 2020 and March 2021. That’s a lot of workers who could be rehired.

But Hamann says once the pandemic hit, “a lot of people got out of the industry entirely.” Some potential employees might still be worried about the coronavirus, while others, Hamann and Smiley both say, are making enough with expanded unemployment benefits that there is no incentive to work, at least not yet.

And restaurants are not alone. At Egea Spa downtown, for example, owner Catherine Pappas says there is a “huge shortage” of employees.

Before COVID, Egea was open seven days a week, until 8 p.m. Now it’s four days a week, closing at 5.

“The pipeline of labor has dried up,” she says. “We’re trying to get it back,” by giving out signing and referral bonuses.

“We could handle another 20 people if we could find them,” Pappas adds.

One problem, Pappas says, is that many of her employees had to stay home with small children, while school was held remotely. Plus, institutions where massage therapists and other similar employees learn their crafts were closed due to the pandemic.

“You can’t Zoom” that type of hands-on learning, Pappas says. Every employee has to be licensed, and school takes a year. You can’t just hire somebody off the street.

Some local organizations are trying to help. The Youth Job Center provides training and “career pathways programs” for 2,000 young people a year, ages 14-25. The typical participant is someone who does not want to go to college, but is eager to get a job.

One of the Center’s programs is for the culinary and hospitality industries.

Eileen Halstrom, the Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, says 62% of the agency’s young people in the restaurant/hospitality field lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Now that job demand is picking back up, Halstrom says, “we’re definitely looking for employers where a young person can advance.” The Center can even help cover some of the employee’s salary while the person learns on the job.

The Center is planning on a job fair next month. Details will be announced soon. “We have a lot of young people wanting to go” into the hospitality field, she says.

Some jobs have requirements beyond entry level. Massage therapists need licenses. Servers who pour alcohol must be 21, which reduces the employee pool for a brewery or certain restaurants.

But it is still an employee’s market. Mike Smylie says he could hire 30 part time workers if he could find them. Smylie says he used to require two years’ experience in the restaurant business.

“Now,” he says, “if you’ve got a heartbeat we’ll give you a job, probably.”

He’s only kidding, but that does show you the need is real. Help wanted.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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