- Special Projects
There’s a new kind of thievery going on in restaurant and retail businesses in Hawaii. Not theft by employees. But theft of employees.
With Hawaii’s low unemployment rate, there are not enough workers to fill the available jobs. Some employers are pilfering their competitors’ employees by offering them more money or more flexible hours.
“Now Hiring” signs are popping up everywhere.
You can see notices posted in retail stores and restaurant windows. Out in Hawaii Kai, the Chinese restaurant Panda put up a huge banner seeking workers.
Hawaii’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in 10 years. For the last four months, it’s held steady at 2.7 percent.
In economic terms, 2.7 percent unemployment actually means full employment, says Linda Chu Takayama, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
“It’s a perfect storm,” she says, with more retail stores and restaurants opening and needing new workers at the same time that there are already too few workers for existing jobs.
“There are vacancies from entry level minimum wage jobs all the way up to the senior level professional employment,” Takayama says.
And this isn’t just in the private sector, she says, but also in state government with positions at all levels remaining unfilled.
Still, hiring frustration seems especially strong in the food service business.
Craigslist.org has more than 100 pages online offering 1,200 “Food Service and Hospitality” jobs for everything from gelato scoopers and dishwashers to restaurant managers.
Just talk to any restaurant professional and you will get an earful.
“Hiring difficulties are unending and rampant,” says Rich Stula.
Stula and his partner, Ted Tsakiris, who own 12 burger eateries on Oahu called Teddy’s Bigger Burgers and also a new poke bowl restaurant in Hawaii Kai called BYO Bowls.
“Hiring is more difficult now than it has ever been,” Stula says.
Stula says he was stunned when the boss of a restaurant in Kaneohe called the manager of Teddy’s Bigger Burgers in Kailua while the manager was busy working to urge her to come and work for him.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my god. Have we stooped so low?’ I couldn’t believe it. The employee was also shocked. You don’t do that in the restaurant business. It’s just so tacky.”
Stula says he can go for a month without anyone applying for work at his restaurants. He says he used to require two interviews before he would hire anyone. But now if he likes an applicant, he will hire that person on the spot.
“I can’t let them walk out the door to be quickly hired by the next restaurant looking for workers.”
Employees suffer with the staff shortages by having to work harder and longer and customers get irked by spotty service and having to wait longer for their food.
Stula he says he has heard of restaurants closing one night a week or cutting their hours to make up for their lack of employees.
Gregg Fraser, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, confirms the hiring crisis.
“There are more restaurants opening than there are candidates to fill the openings,” he says.
Restaurants are now opening in places they never were in before, Fraser says.
Supermarket giant Foodland now has its Foodland Farms food stations at Ala Moana Center and tourist-goods seller ABC Stores is serving food and cocktails at its new Duke’s Lane Market and Eatery in Waikiki.
Fraser also points to residential condominium buildings for the first time featuring retail shops and restaurants on their ground floors. All that, combined with dozens of new restaurant openings in Chinatown, Kakaako and Waikiki.
“This is unheard of,” he says. “I have never seen so many restaurants opening at the same time.”
Fraser also talked about the theft of employees by other restaurants.
“More and more restaurants are up in arms about their employees being lured away by other restaurants,” he says. “But there is no law against it. My reply to them is, ‘create better morale. Make your environment all-embracing so your staff never wants to leave you. Offer incentive programs to allow your employees to make more money on the job.’”
Some restaurant owners offering higher base pay to attract food servers, Fraser says. In normal times, servers are paid only minimum wage because the bulk of their income from tips.
Employee staffing and turnover can be particularly acute in smaller establishments that serve mainly coffee, pastries and snacks — where tips often are not very high.
Rich Stula’s wife, Bree, owns a cafe in Waikiki. Stula says they both got very excited when 12 people submitted applications to work at her Banyan Breeze Coffee Co. But none of the applicants showed up to be interviewed.
Roland Longstreet, the manager of ARS Cafe on Monsarrat Avenue east of Kapiolani Park, says he is putting in 11-hour days because of the difficulty of hiring and retaining employees.
“It’s hard to find people who are qualified and responsible. You hire someone and carefully train the employee and then they quit. It is the transient nature of life in Hawaii.”
Liz Schwartz, the owner of Coffee Talk in Kaimuki, says she works hard at keeping her employees happy.
“People will stay where they are treated with respect, and if they are treated like garbage they will go somewhere else,” Schwartz says.
Takayama says the hiring shortage also is compounded because high school students are not as inclined as they were in the past to take minimum wage jobs at restaurants and stores to get their first work experience.
She says they want internships to put on their college application and work resumes.
Businesses, government and nonprofits are aware of this need and are generating grants for apprenticeship programs for high school students to help them enter professions and businesses where they can launch careers.
“If you don’t have the people for jobs you have to start growing them,” Fraser says.
The Hawaii Restaurant Association’s education foundation has started its own training program called “Pro Start” in 12 Hawaii public high schools on three islands.
Students in the participating schools are offered a class in culinary and food service management as an elective in their regular school curriculum.
Tyler Roukema, the owner of Outback Steakhouse in Hawaii Kai, is a supporter of this early outreach.
“We need to be a force to provide early training to make an impact,” Roukema says.
“I tell people staffing is my number one problem; my number two and number three problem: staffing,” Roukema says. “Everyone is competing for the same people.”