The Great Resignation hits local Jewish-owned businesses
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COVID-19The Great Resignation

The Great Resignation hits local Jewish-owned businesses

In Squirrel Hill, the South Hills and Shadyside, small business owners make sense of labor shortages

Amazing Books and Records. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Amazing Books and Records. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Years ago, Jeff Weiner grew tired of searching for capable workers for his Mt. Lebanon-based specialty store, Eden’s Market a Gluten Free Emporium, so he stopped looking.

He and his wife, Suzanne, began staffing their business on their own, and things were going well — until the “Great Resignation” hit.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last week that 4.3 million Americans, or 2.9% of the entire workforce, quit their jobs in August 2021. The record-breaking month followed a period of similar statistics in which droves of workers left their places of employment.

Now, Jewish business owners in Pittsburgh are finding that, one way or the other, their companies are being impacted.

Weiner said those numbers affect his business not because of in-store staffing — he decided long ago it “wasn’t worth the aggravation” of finding workers with requisite knowledge of natural, organic and gluten-free foods — but because the labor shortage is crippling his suppliers.

Many of the farms and factories he orders from lack workers, and as a result have either “shut down or shut down to small capacities,” Weiner said, leading him to believe that “people just don’t want those kinds of jobs.”

Weiner has worked in the grocery business for nearly 40 years. At the start of his career, there were employees who would stick around for decades, but “when those people retired it was impossible to find replacements,” he said.

Something changed. Maybe it’s a different work ethic, he said, or maybe workers no longer feel the same kind of connection to their job.

Whatever it is, Weiner said, the recent dearth of employees is surprising.

Sign posted at Little’s Shoes. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Justin Sigal, president of Little’s Shoes on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, wonders if workers are worried about face-to-face interactions during a pandemic.

Sigal’s staff have a lot of in-person contact with their customers. He said there’s a “safe way to do it,” and that’s how his business has managed to stay open.

Even so, Little’s, like other employers, has had to cut its hours of operation.

“We’ve always been open till 9. Now we’re only open to 6. That’s a reflection of not having enough staff,” Sigal said.

Down the street on Forbes, Amazing Books and Records owner Eric Ackland is regularly working 70 hours per week.

Those hours are spent between Amazing Books’ Squirrel Hill and downtown locations, Ackland said.

Both Ackland and Sigal said their businesses are looking to hire and can’t fill open positions.

Ackland isn’t sure what else he can do to attract workers.

“I offer health care, paid time off and employee discounts to my full-time employees, and profit-sharing with my manager,” he said.

In an attempt to retain his current staff, Ackland also has given raises.

But Sigal isn’t sure it’s all about economics.

Nearly 9 million Americans stopped receiving unemployment benefits as of Labor Day. Yet even with the pandemic safety net expiring, “I’m not seeing an uptick in people wanting to come back to work,” Sigal said.

Little’s, like Amazing Books, has regularly advertised open positions. Neither business has been successful in attracting talent. Ackland has tried posting on Indeed.com and placing signs in his storefronts. In the past, both efforts would net between 10 and 20 applications within a few weeks. Now, nearly no one is applying, he said.

Sigal described similar hiring pains. “I can’t make people work,” he said.

E.b. Pepper, owner of the eponymous clothing boutique in Shadyside, said she’s grateful to operate such a small business at this time.

The labor shortage affecting so many industries “doesn’t affect me,” she said. “I have only one part-time person. I just need me.”

Pepper said her store has returned to pre-pandemic hours.

“We are happy that people are able to come out and shop again, and we’re thrilled that everyone is getting vaccinated and getting back to their normal life,” she added.

Even if many customers are returning to normality, many businesses are not, Sigal said.

Restaurants are a prime example of establishments where staffing shortages are affecting operating hours. Although eating and drinking spots hired 29,000 workers in September 2021, the industry is still 900,000 jobs short of its pre-pandemic staffing levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Sigal notices skeleton crews and employee shortages when trying to dine at his favorite haunts. He’d like to see small businesses, including his own store, thrive again. Staffing, he said, is central to that success, but he doesn’t know what’s going to change any time soon.

“I don’t understand. It’s mind boggling,” he said. “People got to go to work eventually.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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