Businesses Struggle With Limited Work Force

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On any other weekday at 2 p.m., the Country Kitchen restaurant would be open and serving the tail end of the lunch crowd.

But on Wednesday, two days after shutting its doors, the blinds were drawn. Inside, restaurant owner Marty Carpenter, heartbroken, sat among tables holding upturned chairs.

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Country Kitchen closed its doors for good Monday morning. Owner Marty Carpenter cited an undependable work force as one of the factors that forced him out of business.

Economics forced him to close the Payson eatery, known for its Friday night fish fries.

Rising food costs, utility and labor costs combined with stiff competition and a rigid profit margin forced the closure.

But more than anything else, Payson's unstable labor pool and Carpenter's struggle to find reliable and competent workers pushed the restaurant's already tenuous balance of economics over the line.

The Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation and APS released a study Thursday that considered these forces.

Between May and June 2006, the agencies collected data from 30 local merchants, specifically related to the region's work force and business growth.

"Payson is at a crossroads," said Barbara Ganz, director of PREDC. "I think we need to think seriously about the drug issue, the housing issue and postsecondary education. There are so many things that seem separate, but they are not. You can't just say the issues are too big and not address them."

Carpenter's struggle to find employees he could count on affects most Rim Country businesses.

Seventy-seven percent of the businesses polled are dissatisfied with the quality, availability and stability of the local work force. The study also concluded that fickle employees served as the third biggest impediment to economic growth in this community.

The work force struggle has hit the food-service industry especially hard.

In 2005, the food-service sector accounted for 666 out of Payson's 5,884 workers --- the second largest employer behind the medical profession, according to the Arizona Department of Commerce.

"It's the biggest struggle," said Greg Day of Macky's Grill. "There is stiff competition for workers and it's tough because the industry doesn't pay that well. And there's no place for them to live. They have to buddy up or several people have to live in one place. It's the only way they can afford to live."

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that food servers in Arizona earn $14,200 a year. Cooks earn just above $19,000.

Erica Shover, a single mother, lives this statistic.

She waits tables at two restaurants -- the Small Cafe and the Main Street Grille -- to support herself and her child.

"It's hard to be a single mother and pay bills, especially being a server because you rely on tips," Shover said. "During the summer, you have to save up for the winter. Otherwise, you'll be in trouble."

David Roberson, owner of the Small Cafe, said he struggled through no-shows, incompetency and bad attitudes to find Shover and the handful of employees who now work at his gourmet bistro.

"It's taken me a year and a half to get keepers," Roberson said. "The drug problem has been so pervasive. People are so busy partying they can't drag themselves out of bed to come to work."

Drugs and alcohol, said Ganz, do contribute to turnover, and so does the transient nature of lower-income workers and a lack of work ethic.

"We've never had people not show up (at Macky's) until recently," Day said. "In the last year, it's just gotten really bad. This week, we hired someone on Friday to start Monday. They called to get their schedule on Sunday and they never showed up. It costs a lot of time and money to train somebody."

Mike Armstead knows this only too well.

He's spent thousands of dollars to certify specialized mechanics for his body shop, Exclusive Refinishing.

In one instance, Armstead paid $800 for an employee to receive training. A week later, that worker quit.

Armstead and his brother Tim said they've also covered bail, drug counseling and home loans for their employees.

It's a matter of personnel recycling.

"I keep hiring the same employees back," Armstead said. "In Payson, there's not a whole lot of firing going on. They get tired of their job so they just jump around and when they need their job back they come back and we have to hire them because there's nobody else."

In 2002, the Armsteads, who grew up in Payson, employed 26 people. Today, that number is down to 10.

"People need to look into the youth of this community and keep them here," Armstead said. "We're not training any kids in this community. They're not ready to work when they get out of high school."

In 13 years, Armstead has hired one employee who returned to Payson after receiving an education.

The work force dilemma isn't limited to small businesses. Corporate chains, such as Wal-Mart, share the burden as well.

Quinn Cremer, manager of Wal-Mart, is always looking to fill entry-level positions. Limited pay and worker transience constantly work against him.

"It's horrible," Cremer said. "As soon as these younger families get to the point where they can earn an income, they're out of here. I get as many people who are overqualified as who are underqualified. Anybody who walks through that door, we're all over them."

And yet, the answer to improving the quality and breadth of the work force is as complicated as the problem.

"Everything just keeps escalating," Day said. "You just try to keep up. You don't get to adjust your prices (every time costs go up). You go for a little while, but you're just spinning your wheels. I don't think the general public realizes how serious it is."

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmedgal@payson.com.

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