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'Really Challenging Times': Santa Rosa Businesses Are Hurting For Employees

South Santa Rosa County is facing a “workforce crisis” according to several business owners with restaurants understaffed and peak tourist season under way. 

Thursday morning, the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a roundtable discussion with CareerSource EscaRosa to help identify problems and come up with some solutions.

“We’re hiring line cooks at $18-$20 an hour, we’re offering $500 sign-on bonuses — whatever necessary to alleviate the employees who are already overwhelmed,” said Austyn Evans, director of marketing for Shrimp Basket, LLC which has 240 open positions from Perdido Key to Destin. “In our Destin location, we only have three servers. We posted a sign that says ‘Be kind.’”

Navarre-area restaurants have been busier than ever after last year’s shutdown. But they’re having a hard time meeting the demand. Last week, establishment such as Where Y’at Seafood Market and Restaurant, and Bistro 98 told the Pensacola News Journal they had to temporarily close their doors to give staff a break. 

And that problem isn’t limited to Navarre. On Thursday, McAlister’s Deli in Fort Walton Beach was closed. A Facebook user shared a photo of a sign on the door which said “We will be closing the store today due to nobody showing up for their shifts!” 

“Every single business on Pensacola Beach and in Gulf Breeze proper are understaffed,” said Patty Spradling, executive director of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce. “It’s just going to get worse and we’re going to be going back to to-go orders and self-checkout.” 

Some business owners blame the lack of job seekers on the second wave of stimulus checks and the expanded unemployment benefits. 

Tamara Fountain, owner of Windjammers on the Pier Restaurant, said she understood the first round of checks and benefits were a needed lifeline, but now “it’s time to take it away.”

“It’s an incredible subsidy that keeps people from working,” she said. 

While Fountain’s restaurant is fully-staffed, she said she’s concerned for the people who will be “starving for jobs” once benefits run out. And she urged Scott Davidson, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz’s director of military affairs who attended the roundtable, to help get that message to Congress. She also suggested local chambers write a letter to state lawmakers. 

In Pensacola Beach and Gulf Breeze, the Pensacola Bay Bridge has been the biggest barrier for employers. The bridge has now been closed for nearly seven months. 

For its part, career placement professionals have also been having a hard time engaging job-seekers. 

“We’ve been feeling the pinch as well,” said Brenda Kay of Express Employment Professionals. “We still have viable candidates, but the number has dropped.” 

CareerSource EscaRosa has been hosting virtual job fairs since last year. Their last event featured 409 job postings, with 126 job-seekers, but there was no data on how many positions were filled. 

Russell Raught, local veterans’ employment representative and disabled veterans outreach program specialist, admits the Navarre area has been underserved by CareerSource. 

He suggested hosting a traditional job fair — “just like in 2018” — focusing on the hospitality industry. But some at the roundtable say virtual is how you reach the younger job-seekers. 

“I sent an e-blast for an office job and 67% opened it up on their phone,” said Kay. “I love the old-fashioned way of getting in front of people, but it’s a lot of time to set up and then pray someone comes to your booth.” 

“I do most of my interviewing by text,” added Fountain. “You have to think about the way we recruit (service industry jobs). I don’t really care if someone can make a resume …. do they have fast feet, a strong back, what’s the volume of orders you’re used to handling? That’s what I need to know.”  

Outside the pandemic, is the issue of low wages. While Florida passed the incremental $15 minimum wage, it won’t reach the full amount until 2026. The minimum wage will increase from $8.65 an hour to $10 in September. 

“You can’t afford to live at these (current) wages,” said Davidson, who just helped his teenage son land his first job. 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
Brenda Kay of Express Employment Professionals at the Navarre Beach roundtable Thursday morning.

Fountain said she starts her fry cooks at $18 an hour. And Spradling said some of the bigger restaurants on Pensacola Beach are increasing their wages to try and steal employees. Bill Garner, a military family employment advocate for CareerSource EscaRosa, said the clients he works with aren’t interested in service industry jobs. 

Transportation is another big issue. Fountain said she’s had to drive employees to and from work, but it’s a task she’s willing to do for good employees. 

“My employees are facing issues with transportation, addiction, housing,” she said. “These are really challenging times.”

At H.T. Hackney, a wholesale grocery distributer located in Milton, the workload has grown exponentially as grocery stores were scrambling to restock shelves. Office manager LaFonda Player said they would even put employees up in hotels for the night after working 15 to 16 hours a day. 

When they were understaffed earlier this week, Player pitched in to work the warehouse. 

Chanda Ryan, president/CEO of the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, worries that the busy days are yet to come and staff will be stretched even further. 

“We’re already in season,” she said. “When we get to the summer months, I’m afraid it’s going to be like a hurricane.” 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.